Select Committee on European Scrutiny Twentieth Report


ENDOCRINE DISRUPTERS


(22531)
10301/01
COM(01) 262

Commission Communication on the implementation of the Community
strategy for endocrine disrupters.


Legal base:
Document originated:14 June 2001
Forwarded to the Council: 15 June 2001
Deposited in Parliament: 18 July 2001
Department:Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of consideration: EM and Minister's letter of 1 March 2002
Previous Committee Report: None, but see footnote below
To be discussed in Council: No date set
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:Cleared, but relevant to the debate recommended on future chemicals policy


Background

  14.1  Because of growing concern about the so-called "endocrine disrupters", the Commission produced in December 1999 a Communication[37], which sought to identify the problems they create, their causes and consequences, and to set out a strategy with short, medium, and long-term actions aimed at responding to them.

  14.2  The Communication pointed out that there are two classes of substance which can cause endocrine disruption:

  • "natural" hormones found in the bodies of humans and animals, and in some plants;

  • man-made substances, which include synthetically produced hormones (including those which are identical to natural hormones), and man-made chemicals, designed for uses in industry or produced as a by-product of industrial processes.

Natural hormones easily break down, spend very little time in the body, and thus do not accumulate in tissue, whereas synthetically produced hormones are designed to interfere with the endocrine system, and may also present risks from indirect exposure, including unintended uptake through residues in food or in sewage effluent. They may also have unforeseen adverse effects, over and above the uses for which they are designed.

  14.3  The Communication went on to say that the problem of endocrine disruption was not in itself new, but that the Commission's Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment (SCTEE) had concluded that, although a causative role had not yet been verified, there were associations between endocrine-disrupting chemicals and a range of human health disturbances, such as testicular, breast and prostate cancers, a decline in sperm counts, deformities of the reproductive organs, and thyroid disfunction, as well as intelligence and neurological problems. There was also strong evidence of endocrine disruption in wildlife. In general, it concluded that vulnerability will depend on the intrinsic properties of the chemical, the type of exposure, the ability of a species to absorb or eliminate substances, and the sensitivity of specific organs at different stages of development.

  14.4  In considering the actions needed to respond to this problem, the Communication identified four lines of approach: further research, international co-ordination, communication to the public, and policy action.

  14.5  In the latter case, it noted that a substantial number of chemicals were already subject to regulatory measures, but that this was usually done on the basis of reported toxic effects, without the underlying mechanisms being identified. It therefore suggested that more comprehensive controls should be considered. It also examined the approach taken in existing Community legislation, which is based on a three-stage approach, involving hazard identification, risk assessment, and risk management. It added that, for each of these stages, the amount of scientific evidence can vary greatly, and that the precautionary principle was thus a key underpinning consideration.

  14.6  The Communication concluded by setting out a proposed strategy in line with the precautionary principle. In the short term, this would involve identifying exposure pathways; establishing a priority list of substances for further evaluation and to identify gaps in knowledge about their effects; using the available legislative instruments; establishing monitoring programmes to estimate exposure to, and effects of, substances on the priority list; identifying specific cases of consumer use, for example by children, for special action; information exchanges and international co-ordination; better communication to the public; and consultations with the so-called stakeholders (Member States, industry, and non-governmental organisations). Looking further ahead, the Communication suggested that there was a need to develop agreed test methods for effects such as reproductive toxicity and carcinogenicity; to carry out further research into the mechanisms of endocrine disruption; and to identify substitutes for those chemicals on the priority list. In the long term, the Commission said that, in order to take account of endocrine-disrupting effects, it will be necessary to propose amendments to existing Community legislation covering chemicals, as well as consumer, health and environmental protection.

The current document

  14.7  The current document is a progress report from the Commission on the implementation of the strategy. Much of this is concerned with the main short-term action of establishing a priority list of substances, first by establishing evidence of endocrine disrupting effects and secondly by setting priorities for action. It says that an exercise by consultants identified 553 substances, divided into three groups according to the volume produced, persistence in the environment, evidence of endocrine disruption, and exposure considerations. These findings were then considered by the SCTEE, though the Commission says that this (and subsequent discussion) revealed some misgivings about the consultants' conclusions. As a result, it was agreed that the study should be regarded as a starting point for setting priorities, and that, although all 553 candidate substances would be retained for further evaluation, a more in-depth study was needed before restrictions could be considered. In the meantime, it was noted that, of 118 potential candidates deemed to have evidence of potential endocrine disruption, 109 were already subject to bans or restrictions under existing Community legislation, albeit for reasons unconnected with endocrine disruption.

  14.8  The Communication says that the Commission intends to implement priority actions involving an in-depth evaluation over the next 12-18 months of 12 candidate substances, of which nine show evidence of endocrine disruption (or potential disruption) but are not currently restricted under Community legislation, whilst the other three are natural or synthetic steroids which have already been identified as potentially problematic when present in sewage effluents. Priority will also be given during this period to gathering information on 435 substances where there is insufficient evidence in the consultants' report to take a decision. In addition, the Commission says that, for 46 candidate substances where there is evidence of endocrine disruption, and which are subject to risk assessment under existing Community legislation, it will ask Member States to speed up those assessments and to take available evidence of endocrine disruption into account. It will also ask Member States to carry out classifications using existing test results for carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity and environmental dangers, in the case of two substances where there is evidence of endocrine disruption potential, but which are neither restricted, classified nor being addressed under existing Community legislation.

  14.9  On the other aspects of the strategy, the Communication notes the discussions held with other countries, either bilaterally or through the World Health Organisation, and the Commission's participation in an OECD task force to develop an internationally harmonised testing strategy for endocrine disruptors, including the development and validation of test methods for both human health and environmental effects. It also notes work being carried out on endocrine disruptors under the Fourth and Fifth Community Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development. Finally, as regards long-term action, the Communication draws attention to the importance of action being taken in other areas. These include the revision of the General Product Safety Directive (92/59/EC); the identification of priority substances in the field of water policy; and the Commission's White Paper[38] on a Strategy for a future Chemicals Policy (where one of the key elements is the proposed authorisation strategy for substances of very high concern).

The Government's view

  14.10  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 1 March 2002, the Minister of State (Environment) at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr Michael Meacher) says that in general the UK is supportive of the approach proposed in the Community strategy, which was agreed by the Environment Council on 30 March 2000, and that it is content with the progress being made. He adds that it wants to see this continue, particularly as regards the development of appropriate test methods for accurately identifying endocrine disrupting chemicals whilst recognising the need to minimise animal testing. It is also strongly in favour of the Commission continuing to work closely with Member States, industry, and green and consumer non-governmental organisations on all aspects of the strategy.

  14.11  The Minister also deals in a covering letter with the inordinate delay in providing an Explanatory Memorandum on this document, which was deposited on 18 July 2001. He says that he received from his Department's Environment Policy Group, and signed, an Explanatory Memorandum during October 2001, at a time when the merger of the scrutiny units of the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions was taking place. This meant that old MAFF Parliamentary Scrutiny Unit, which inherited responsibility for the environment dossiers, was unaware of the proposal until later, when it transpired that the signed Explanatory Memorandum had not been forwarded to Parliament. The Minister adds that he is well aware of the importance attached to parliamentary scrutiny of European legislation, and he apologises for the delay which occurred in this particular instance.

Conclusion

  14.12  We note the Minister's apology for the delay in submitting an Explanatory Memorandum on this document, and, although no great harm seems to have arisen on this occasion, it is a further worrying example of the problems which have arisen with parliamentary scrutiny as a result of the creation of the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We can only hope that these have now been finally overcome.

  14.13  As for the substance of this document, it is of course essentially a progress report on the implementation of a strategy which our predecessors drew to the attention of the House in February 2000, and consequently, although it contains a number of points on which we too think it right to report, we see no need to withhold clearance. That said, we note the link between this strategy and the Commission's strategy for a future chemicals policy, which our predecessors recommended on 25 April 2001 for debate in European Standing Committee A.[39] We therefore regard this document as relevant to that debate. Moreover, since over ten months has now elapsed since that original recommendation, we think it high time a debate was held, and that, unless there are convincing reasons for further delay, the Government should now seek to arrange this as quickly as possible.



37   (20879) 5257/00; see HC 23-viii (1999-2000), paragraph 16 (9 February 2000). Back

38   (22212) 6671/01; see HC 28-xii (2000-01), paragraph 1 (25 April 2001) Back

39  (22212) 6671/01: HC 28-xii (2000-01), paragraph 1 (25 April 2001). The debate recommendation was confirmed on 18 July 2001: HC 152-i (2001-02), paragraph 1. Back


 
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