Skip to main content

International community kicks it up a notch

Baskut-daryl-cielBy Baskut
, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

Recently, the global community kicked it
up a notch by issuing a simple statement on hormone disrupting chemicals during
negotiations on a process intended to achieve the sound management of chemicals
globally by 2020 (called “SAICM”).  Despite seeming like an innocuous statement, it lays the
groundwork to allow countries from all across the world to take action on
hormone disrupting chemicals.  This
is a big step forward for the international community working to take action on
toxic chemicals.

So what does the statement say? It recognizes and states, “the potential
adverse effects of endocrine disruptors on human health and the environment […
and] the need to protect humans, and ecosystems and their constituent parts
that are especially vulnerable

Well, we’ve known
this for decades, right?
  True, but
this seemingly obvious statement is the first global decision in international
law on the urgent need for the global community to tackle endocrine disrupting
chemicals globally.  It was
reached by consensus among 122 governments and nearly 100 inter-governmental
and non-governmental organizations, including representatives of chemical
manufacturers.  And it stands in
stark contrast to the actions of some of these 122 governments.  For example, after throwing in the
towel on defending asbestos a few months ago, Canada is now defending the
endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA)
, despite banning BPA in baby bottles in
2010….puzzling, I know. 

These hormone-disrupting chemicals, called “endocrine
disruptors” (or EDCs), interfere with hormone signaling.  Tests show their presence in everything
from personal-care products like cosmetics and sunscreen, to food, to clothing,
to children’s products including toys, to building materials, to furniture and
more, including people and wildlife. 
Chemicals such as BPA and certain phthalates gained international
notoriety as widely used EDCs that have been linked to a myriad of adverse
effects, including:  reproductive
effects, such as infertility and reduced semen quality and quantity; breast,
mammary, testicular and prostate cancers; type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart
disease; neurobehavioral outcomes; and thyroid and immune system dysfunction.  But the problem is much bigger than BPA
and phthalates: over 800 chemicals have at least one peer-reviewed scientific
publication describing their endocrine disrupting properties (see the full list

Babies in utero and very young children are extremely
vulnerable to both the effects of individual EDCs at low-doses, as well as the
mixture of chemicals with endocrine disrupting properties that are regularly
found in the umbilical cords and breast milk of pregnant women.  Both the effects of EDCs at low-doses,
and the stronger than expected effect of mixtures of these chemicals (i.e.
cocktail effect), raise significant questions about the methods used to assess
the risks of chemicals, and the continued use of certain chemicals with these

Certain countries have taken initiatives on specific chemicals
with endocrine disrupting properties, as well as EDCs in general.  The Danish government is independently pursuing
measures to better protect its citizens from products containing four
phthalates, because the European Chemical Agency declined to do so.  Today, the French Senate is expected to
begin debate on a proposal by the French Assemblée Nationale to ban BPA in all
food containers intended for children under three years of age by 2013, and
2015 for the remainder. These national measures come at a time when the European Union is working to improve the ability of several EU laws to protect people and wildlife from EDCs in food, plastics, building materials, and many other sources of daily exposure. 

But the efforts of these and other countries to tackle EDCs more effectively stand in stark contrast to places like the United States and Canada. In addition to Canada’s puzzling defense of BPA, the United
States remains frozen in time, circa the 1970’s, without a mandatory
requirement that all chemicals be tested for their hazards, including potential
for endocrine disruption. And, where chemicals are screened in the U.S., the EPA’s
methods are deemed inadequate by experts in endocrinology. 

So, why is this statement by the global community so
  A recent report by the
UN Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights the accelerating use, production, release
and trade of chemicals in all countries, especially developing countries, and the
corresponding likelihood of increased exposure to EDCs globally.  Together with inadequate laws and
processes to evaluate the endocrine disrupting properties of chemicals in all
countries, future generations are highly vulnerable. 

Currently, SAICM is the only global forum with the potential
to assist all countries to eliminate the harms of EDCs at a global scale.  The declaration “invites” international organizations to develop a series of activities
on EDCs.  Meanwhile,
policy-makers in the United States have the opportunity to get ahead of the
curve by supporting the Safe Chemicals Act,
which proposes significant reforms that seek to eliminate exposure to
EDCs.  Eliminating the use of EDCs is not an easy task, but it grows more
challenging with each passing day. 
We can only hope that the global community develops its strategy to
achieve this goal with the urgency that it deserves.  

Take action today!

Follow CIEL on twitter:@ciel_tweets