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UN-experts have accused the chemical and pesticide industry of an orchestrated effort to ‘confuse and mislead’ politicians and bureaucrats relating the risks to human health associated with exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals. Towards this end the chemical companies employ techniques similar to those used for decades by the tobacco industry, they charge in commentary published recently in the scientific journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, with the ultimate aim of creating scientific doubt, and thereby averting regulation.

With their comments the UN-experts – authors of an authoritative report on endocrine disrupting chemicals from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP) – respond to a study published in June 2014, in which their findings were attacked head-on. This study was funded by lobby groups representing big EU and U.S. chemical companies.

What's in the WHO-UNEP report?


The WHO-UNEP report, published in 2013, attempts to summarize all scientific evidence regarding the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals. One can rightfully say that the report is alarmist: the authors draw the conclusion that endocrine disruptors pose a 'global threat'. The report links exposure to endocrine disruptors to several negative trends observed in populations worldwide: increases in hormone related cancers, diabetes, obesitas, genital deformations, reduced IQ and autism. The report identifies over 800 different chemical substances in our everyday life that may play a role in this. 

‘A created controversy’

In their commentary the UN-experts accuse the chemical industry of trying to create, by means of their self-funded science, the 'false impression of a scientific controversy'. The commentary identifies a number of techniques used to do this, amongst them a method which they call the 'mimicking of scientific critique'. This involves, they write, the detailed inspection of a scientific study for methodological rigor, all with the ultimate aim of rejecting the entire study as flawed or biased.

Seven out of the ten scientists behind the study attacking the WHO-UNEP report indeed turn out to be working as consultants 

''This industry-funded study does not in any way debate the propositions we make in the WHO-UNEP report,'' the Swedish Åke Bergman, who is one of the UN-experts, says. “The study is incredibly superficial, but it can still convey a the wrong impression for to people unfamiliar with the subject matter.” According to Bergman none of the authors behind the industry-funded study belong to the forefront of their scientific discipline. ''I do not consider them experts in the field of endocrine disruption,'' he says. ''Most of them work as hired consultants.''

Seven out of the ten scientists behind the study attacking the WHO-UNEP report indeed turn out to be working as consultants. They are employees of Gradient Corp. and Exponent, two American companies with quite a controversial reputation.

Asbestos, dioxine and BPA

The fact that doubt about the dangers of endocrine disruptors is being spread at this very moment is, according to Horel, no coincidence: at this moment the EU is working on rules that should regulate the risky chemicals.  

''These are so-called product defense companies,'' tells the French documentary maker Stéphane Horel. Horel has been researching the efforts made by industry to water down and delay EU regulation dealing with endocrine disruptors for years. “Their goal is not to have a scientific debate, but instead to plant the seed of doubt; they want to leave a trace in the scientific literature. These two companies are specialized in the scientific defense of chemical substances. Gradient Corp. has for instance worked before on asbestos, dioxine and Bisphenol A (BPA). In addition, both companies have in the past also provided their services to the tobacco industry.”

The fact that doubt about the risks of endocrine disruptors is manufactured at this very moment is no coincidence, according to Horel: currently the EU is working on rules behind the scenes that should regulate these potentially dangerous chemicals.

According to Horel, Gradient Corp. and Exponent have tried before to derail this European effort to regulate endocrine disruptors. In 2012, both companies attacked a report from the European Commission, written by the distinguished British toxicologist Andreas Kortenkamp. The Kortenkamp-report gave a summary of the state of science on endocrine disruptors, and argued for a strict ban of these chemicals. Such a ban would have prohibited pesticides with a market value running into the billions of euros – according to internal industry documents seen by OneWorld.

Consequently, the proposal for an EU wide ban was abandoned. In July 2013 the European Commission, being under immense pressure from the chemical industry and trading partners such as the U.S., decided not to move forward with the proposed regulation. The Kortenkamp-report was buried by top EU officials, a move that was legitimized on the grounds of a supposed 'divergence' of opinion among scientists. That was at least what the European Commission declared publicly in response to questions from the European Parliament. 

Aside from the 2012-studies by Gradient and Exponent, a letter from a group of scientists under the leadership of Wolfgang Dekant, a consultant for the German chemical company BASF, sent in June 2013 to the Commission had also fed into the idea of a scientific controversy. According to the letter, the plan to ban endocrine disruptors had no 'scientific basis'. Remarkably, when Wolfgang Dekant met with Andreas Kortenkamp in October 2013, after being invited by the European Commission to do so, Dekant withdrew his criticism. A fact that becomes clear from the minutes of their meeting (pdf). However, by then the Commission had already decided to steer away from a Europe-wide ban behind closed doors.

‘Close connections to industry’

In June 2014 the Commission came up with a new plan called 'the roadmap'. Here the option is introduced to allow endocrine disruptors on the EU market as long as certain preconditions are met, an approach strongly favored by industry. The idea is to use so called 'potency' to determine whether an endocrine disruptor should be banned, meaning that only those chemicals that have the biggest potential to harm human health and/or the environment are regulated. 

Interestingly, ‘potency’ is the prime scientific concept that is proposed in the Gradient-Exponent study from June 2014; the study that attacked the findings of the WHO-UNEP.

Potency is of course relevant (…) but it cannot be the sole and decisive criterion when it comes to regulating endocrine disrupters.


According to the authors the UN-experts in their report ignore the importance of 'dose and potency'. “The report of the WHO-UNEP discusses the potential effects that endocrine disruptors can have, but does not take dose and exposure into account”, James Lamb, coauthor of the Gradient-Exponent study says. “The authors of the WHO-UNEP report are for reasons unknown to me of the opinion that these factors are of no importance.”

But in their commentary the UN-experts state that they did take potency into account. “Potency is of course relevant,” they write, “but it cannot be the sole and decisive criterion when it comes to regulating endocrine disrupters. Timing of exposure, irreversibility of effect and other criteria also have to be considered.” The UN-experts are alluding to the fact that an unborn child in the mother's womb will, when exposed, suffer damage much sooner than an adult. Young children and teenagers allegedly are more sensitive to disruption of their endocrine systems as well.

Industry: ‘WHO-UNEP report biased’

In a response chemical industry group Cefic, one of the funders behind the Exponent-Gradient study, denies to be purposefully obscuring endocrine science. “Cefic supports the use of objective, peer-reviewed scientific evidence to support policymakers. At no time have we sought, nor would we seek, to use science to confuse or mislead. We reject that allegation out of hand.'' Cefic poses says it financed the work of James Lamb in order to clarify the debate. “We felt that the original WHO-UNEP report presented a partial and tendentious reading of the evidence.''

According to Cefic the commentary of the UN-experts proves that there are still many diverging views relating endocrine disruptors. “The fact that the paper presented by Lamb et al is now being questioned only goes to show that the science in this area is far from settled.''

James Lamb is currently working on a response to the commentary written by the UN-experts, he tells. Åke Bergman really can do without that discussion. “Reacting to the study of Lamb has cost me and my colleagues the main part of our holiday”, he says. “No one has paid us for it, but we thought it necessary to come up with a strong response. Still, we would prefer to focus on issues that are of real scientific concern here. To be honest, this whole affair is immensely counterproductive.”

Intoxication On October 8th, in France, Stéphane Horel’s book ‘Intoxication’ was published. It tells the story of how European ambitions to regulate endocrine disruptors were undermined by a sophisticated industry lobby. It is a narrative that also resonates in Horel's documentaries ‘The Great Invasion’ and ‘Endocrination’ (view below).  



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Over de auteur


Vincent Harmsen is onderzoeksjournalist bij OneWorld en schrijft over voedsel, milieu en duurzame ontwikkeling.
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