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Breaking the global paralysis on endocrine disruptors

By Baskut Tuncak

Over the past two decades, the urgent need for global action on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) has become undeniable.   A little-known global agreement—SAICM—might provide the best opportunity for global action to prevent further health and environmental harm from EDCs.

An endocrine disruptor is a chemical, or mixture of chemicals, that interferes with hormone signaling, a mechanism which enables cells to communicate with each other.  Interference with these signals has both direct and indirect consequences for the health of humans and wildlife, including the increased susceptibility to certain diseases.  Adverse effects that have been linked to EDC exposure include reproductive, neurological and cardiovascular effects; diabetes and obesity; deformities; weakened immune systems; and cancer.

One of the most tragic aspects of EDCs is the vulnerability of young children, including unborn and newborn infants.  During critical periods of development (which includes pre-natal development), the young are highly vulnerable to endocrine disruptors. Exposure to EDCs can occur in the womb; through food, including breast milk; and in the household through products or even dust.  Bio-monitoring studies regularly find EDCs in the bodies of pregnant women. Several of the most commonly used phthalates—once used in vinyl plastics that children place in their mouths, such as pliable toys and the nipples of baby bottles—have been singled out for elimination in Europe, Argentina, Tunisia, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia and the United States.

However, the problem of EDCs is much larger than just phthalates.   The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) has cataloged over 870 chemicals with one or more verified citations of primary scientific research of demonstrated endocrine effects.  ChemSec, located in Sweden, has created a list of 22 EDCs that merit action as Substances of Very High Concern (SVHC) under Europe’s REACH regulation.

A policy objective of SAICM is to “call for appropriate action on emerging policy issues as they arise and to forge consensus on priorities for cooperative action” (see paragraph 24).   But, part of the challenge is that many governments rely on methods that are inadequate for detecting the special dangers that EDCs pose to young children, including the unborn.

In order to be effective, hazard assessments of potential EDCs must give due regard for principles of endocrinology, instead of traditional toxicological methods that ignore effects at very low doses and the importance of timing and mixtures.  One of the best features of SAICM is its open and inclusive nature.   This means that leading endocrinologists and other experts representing a public health perspective can engage in negotiations on how EDCs are addressed by SAICM, helping to ensure that they are effectively addressed globally.

SAICM’s objective of “appropriate actions” include “appropriate mechanisms” to sufficiently address the emerging issue, and an acceleration of the pace of research on the effects of these chemicals on human health and the environment (see paragraphs 14-15). To this end, UNEP and WHO have proposed to include EDCs as an “emerging issue” under SAICM.  This proposal will be discussed by participants at the Open-ended Working Group meeting (OEWG), in Belgrade next week.  This meeting is important because it could determine whether or not SAICM can address the global challenge of EDCs.

My colleagues and I will participate in Belgrade, working to support governments, scientists, health and environmental advocates committed to finding effective solutions to the problems posed by EDCs.  Chemical manufacturers and other companies, and some sympathetic governments, might resist expanding the scope of SAICM to address EDCs.   But protecting the well-being of future generations is on the line, so it is very important that these negotiations lead to pragmatic answers.  We’ll definitely let you know how these negotiations turn out; but, if you want to see how the debate unfolds, be sure to follow regular posting via our facebook page and Twitter account.

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