Progress at last: But what can we learn from the endocrine tale

It has been more than two decades since scientists first started to talk about endocrine disruptors. One of the most divisive issues on the EU environmental agenda, these substances are often referred to as gender-bending chemicals.


What are they? Many substances, including your morning coffee, interact with our hormone system every day, usually harmlessly. This is endocrine activity. An endocrine disrupter, on the other hand is a substance that interacts with the hormonal system but causes harm.


The July 4th vote in the relevant committee of Member State experts sees the impasse of the Commission’s attempt to regulate endocrine disruptors in pesticides and biocides lifted – at least for now.


The Commission proposals, unveiled in June 2016 after three years of drafting, would establish the world’s first legally-binding scientific criteria to determine what an endocrine disruptor is. Finding themselves stuck between significant civil society pressure to adopt the strictest of approaches and industry concern that such a system would cripple businesses. – A situation made only more complicated by the absence of scientific consensus. – The Commission took its cue from the World Health Organisation.


Meant as a compromise solution this approach drew fierce criticism from scientists, NGOs, industry and consumer groups and left EU Governments unable to agree. With such a highly political topic and without a qualified majority, the Commission proposal was stalled.


It’s a situation that says a lot about how complicated these EU processes can be. And getting it right will be vital as these latest measures could go far beyond pesticides and biocides, influencing rules on all industrial chemicals, household products and even medical devices.


At the heart of the issue is the question of how a potential threat is tackled. Do you propose action based on the intrinsic possibility of harm or the likelihood of its manifestation? On top of this, the debate has been hampered by the questions of how do you regulate in the absence of scientific certainty and whose responsibility is it to proof safety.


Take a step back and this issue reveals much about how the EU operates. The core task of the EU is regulation, a necessary function that is usually dismissed as tedious and technical. Sometimes, this regulation touches on issues that have sharp emotional resonance for people. The endocrine debate is one such case, and it has striking similarities to the ongoing wrangles over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and glyphosate. At their core is an issue of what risks are acceptable.


With endocrine disruptors, the accusation is that they meddle with hormones, and could affect unborn children. When the threats are laid out in such crude terms, it is easy to scare people – regardless of the evidence.


Identifying how chemicals interfere with the hormone systems of animals and people is a complex scientific task. But debates about the different EU decision-making processes alienate men and women on the street. People look at the obscure bureaucratic committees and assume they are part of a secretive government-industrial complex. It is not enough to dispassionately study the facts and draw a reasoned conclusion, particularly with public trust at an all-time low. Storytelling is vital. Hearts must be won, along with minds.


This debate has also been an example of the uneasy relationship between science and politics. Scientists might assert that there is no risk, but it remains the right of elected politicians to take a decision that reflects popular fears.


Ultimately, though, the endocrine tale shows how complex navigating the EU can be. You need to understand process and rules. You need to have solid facts. You need to know who matters. You need to be able to compromise and use your imagination. And you need to engage emotionally and tell your story. Policies are made by collections of humans, and if you want to influence them, you need to be human too.


Authors: Venetia Spencer, Alexander Majer & Leo Cendrowicz.


Photo: CC/Shuttershock



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