A Dirty Brussels Secret On Cancerous Chemicals

A troubling tale of how the European Commision stalled the regulation of potentially cancer causing chemicals

The European Commission headquarters in Brussels
The European Commission headquarters in Brussels
Stéphane Horel


It's one of Europe's best-kept secrets. It's locked away somewhere in the maze of corridors of the European Commission, in a room that only about 40 authorized functionaries are allowed to access. And only with paper and pen. Smartphones are banned. Pockets are searched.

This secret is a 250-page report. Or, to use the Commission's jargon, an "impact assessment." This particular one assesses the "socio-economic" consequences of regulating endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Capable of messing with the hormones of animals and humans, endocrine disruptors are thought to be responsible for many serious illnesses, including certain cancers, infertility, obesity, diabetes, neurobehavioral issues, and others. These substances can be found in a multitude of products used in everyday life, from cosmetics and pesticides to plastics. Entire industries would be affected by the regulation of these chemicals. Billions of euros are at stake.

The prospect of regulation, even possible bans, worries industrialists. The pesticide sector, in particular, never kept secret that it was fiercely opposed to certain European measures on pharmaceutical products of plant origin. The many twists during the discussions prior to the bill being adopted would make a great TV show. Passed by lawmakers in 2009, these measures give pesticides special treatment: those officially recognized as endocrine disruptors would no longer be allowed on the European market. Provided of course that European Union legislators can identify them.

So the Commission was supposed to find the way to distinguish between endocrine disruptors and other chemical products. In concrete terms, its job consisted of formulating criteria that would make it possible to identify endocrine disruptors. Without it, the law can't be enforced. Today, seven years later, these criteria still don't exist.

And it's largely this impact study's fault. The assessment, the conclusions of which are apparently are as confidential as the location of the Fountain of Youth, wasn't initially part of the plan.

The pesticides and chemical industries demanded it so it could weaken the regulation, and obtained it after a lightning lobbying offensive in the summer of 2013. The two main obstacles standing in its way were the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) and the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic).

But the giants of agrochemicals had also come to the fore: the two German heavyweights, BASF and Bayer, as well as the Swiss multinational, Syngenta. The then Commission’s secretary-general Catherine Day finally yielded to their demand for an impact assessment on the basis of "diverging opinions" in the scientific community and the "potential impact on sectors of the chemical industry and international trade.” Day, who was then the highest ranking EU official, described the criteria for endocrine disruptors as a "sensitive subject" in an internal memo dated July 2, 2013.

Sensitive, it stayed. And hypersensitive, it became.

The European Parliament gave a deadline of December 2013 to the Commission to write these infamous standards. Not seeing anything coming, Sweden decided to take the Commission to court. This move was supported by France, Denmark, Finland, and Netherlands as well as by the European Parliament and the Council of Europe â€" a rare configuration.

The European Court of Justice reacted promptly. Just before Christmas 2015, it found that the Commission, which is supposed to be the guardian of treaties, had "violated the law of the Union". The ruling swept away the "alleged need for an impact assessment of the scientific criteria" that the Commission had used as its main point of defense.

But on the same day, the European commissioner for health, Vytenis Andriukaitis, from Lithuania, announced that the impact study would proceed regardless. Already hypersensitive, the matter became inflammable.

The European lawmakers are furious. Some of them have already sent several letters to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to no avail. On January 13, the president of the European Parliament himself, Martin Schultz, wrote to Juncker, underlining that the Commission’s delay was "unacceptable" as was the decision to push ahead with the impact assessment "in defiance of the judgment" of the highest EU court. "Comply without delay," Schultz asked. The message was repeated in a second letter, dated March 10.

Sweden, for its part, persists. In a document dated May 13 that Le Monde has obtained, Sweden curtly reminded the Commission that the court "bans the use of economic considerations to define criteria”.

So what is the nature of the "economic considerations" contained in the pages of the impact study under lock and key? In addition to the impact on industry, will they take into account the cost of diseases related to exposure to endocrine disruptors, which independent studies (University of Utrecht, 2016) estimate at between 157 billion and 288 billion euros per year in Europe alone?

The suspense will end on June 15. According to our sources, that's when the final proposal on the criteria for the identification of endocrine disrupters will be presented at a college of European Commissioners meeting.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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