A Dirty Brussels Secret On Cancerous Chemicals
A troubling tale of how the European Commision stalled the regulation of potentially cancer causing chemicals
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 — 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.