Many chemicals are endocrine disruptors. These substances alter the production of hormones, which are the chemical messengers coordinating various functions in the human body. Stéphane Horel offers an illuminating metaphor: these are "tiny raiders of the inner body". The number of items containing them is growing exponentially. The list seems infinite: from cosmetics to pesticides, not to mention baby bottles and seemingly innocent items such as receipts. They have many severe health impacts: diabetes, lower quality of sperm, developmental problems such as autism, breast and prostate cancers, and so on.
Journalist and documentary maker Stéphane Horel is all too familiar with what is termed the "Brussels bubble": this little world where European Commission officials and lobbyists come together on a daily basis to develop most of the European legislation. Her highly detailed book, based on a wealth of documentation, shows the extent to which this power is escaping democratic scrutiny.
The investigation began in 2009. Adopted in 2006, REACH – the European regulation on chemicals – did not contain any definition of endocrine disruptors. Further regulations followed in the wake of REACH. They concerned pesticides, biocides and cosmetics, products that contain numerous molecules suspected of interfering with our hormones. Under pressure from the European Parliament, the Commission was forced to formulate a definition of endocrine disruptors before December 2013. Without this definition, the regulatory mechanisms introduced were ineffective.
The Commission lacked a unanimous approach. The Directorate-General (DG) for the Environment favoured a definition based on scientific criteria and wanted to enshrine the precautionary principle. The DG Health, which is very susceptible to influence from industrial lobbies, tried to gain new ground within the Community bureaucracy. It was able to rely on the British and German governments, and on the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), which has a symbiotic relationship with pesticide producers.
The development of the scientific criteria was entrusted to a team led by one of the top experts in endocrine disruptors, Professor Andreas Kortenkamp. The conclusions of the report published in early 2012 caused panic among manufacturers. A counteroffensive was quickly launched by the organisation of pesticide manufacturers (ECPA, European Crop Protection Association) and many employer organisations in the sectors concerned. Certain multinationals such as Bayer, BASF and Syngenta took determined action. The aim was to circumvent the DG Environment. The centre of power, i.e. the inner circle of the Commission President, Mr Barroso, therefore had to be reached. The manufacturers were able to rely on his Chief Scientific Adviser, Ann Glover, and the Secretary-General of the Commission, Catherine Day. Various scientists were recruited. In the summer of 2013, 14 scientific journals published a common editorial undermining the credibility of the Kortenkamp report. Seventeen of the eighteen editorial writers had ties to industry.
The manufacturers’ aim was to get rid of the precautionary principle. They wanted the definition of endocrine disruptors not to be based on the intrinsic properties of these substances. They proposed what they termed a "potency" criterion to indefinitely delay preventive measures. As it was impossible to accurately measure this "potency criterion", most of the endocrine disruptors that had not been extensively studied could remain on the market.
The investigation details the manoeuvring, alliances and low blows that enabled the endocrine disruptor producers to gain the upper hand. The Commission deliberately decided to infringe its own legal obligations. It did not develop a definition of endocrine disruptors, but instead launched an impact study as if severe human health effects could be tolerated under the pretext of generating corporate profits.
In the autumn of 2014, the formation of the new European Commission, presided over by Mr Juncker, consolidated the victory of the industrial lobbies. Core issues were taken away from the DG Environment. The powers of the DG Health were reinforced. The new Commission has assumed, without mercy, that it can infringe Community law to satisfy industry. Stéphane Horel soberly concludes: "The problem with lobbying is not just that industry defends its own interests. It is that public authorities cannot maintain the integrity of their decisions."
This book reads like a detective novel. There is a commendable quality to having analysed the symbiosis between lobbyists and Eurocrats by following a single issue day after day. It achieves a depth that many scholarly works on political science might envy. It unpicks the fundamental meaning of what Community jargon calls "Better Regulation". If the workings of policy making can be tackled using criminal investigation techniques, does this not mean that the same cynical brutality and the same indifference to human suffering may be values shared by both the economic and political elites and the criminal world?
Perturbateurs endocriniens, lobbyistes et eurocrates: une bataille d’influence contre la santé. Stéphane Horel, Éditions La Découverte, 2015.
A summary in English of Stéphane Horel’s investigation can be downloaded from: http://corporateeurope.org/food-and-agriculture/2015/05/toxic-affair-how-chemical-lobby-blocked-action-hormone-disrupting