Europe Walks Tightrope With Proposal for Chemicals in Pesticides

The European Commission proposed more detailed regulation of hormone-damaging chemicals in pesticides, leaving both the industry and environmentalists crying foul.

The commission, the European Union’s regulatory arm in Brussels, presented draft rules for determining whether pesticides contain so-called endocrine disruptors. The proposed criteria, which would replace interim standards under seven-year-old EU legislation on plant-protection products, are based on the World Health Organization’s definition of an endocrine disruptor.

The pesticides industry has said that EU cereal production risks being cut by stricter regulation of endocrine disruptors because tougher rules could force key farm chemicals off the European market.

“The criteria fail to distinguish between those substances which cause actual harm and others which pose no threat to human safety,” the European Crop Protection Association, which represents producers such as BASF SE, Bayer AG and Dow Chemical Co., said in a statement on Wednesday in Brussels after the much-awaited proposal. “This could lead to bans of crop-protection products with the same endocrine disrupting properties found in everyday products like coffee.”

Risk Versus Hazard

Endocrine disruptors in pesticides have been in the firing line in Europe since 2009, when the EU approved legislation that shifted the safety gauge. The rules went from being “risk-based,” which is an industry-friendly stance that considers the likelihood of human exposure to dangerous chemicals, to being “hazard-based,” a more catch-all approach based on the intrinsic ability of substances to cause harm.

In 2012, the United Nations Environment Program and WHO sounded an alarm over endocrine disruptors, linking them to a global rise in diseases and disorders including cancers, low semen quality in young men, earlier breast development in young girls, obesity and diabetes. At the same time, the two organizations said improved methods are needed for assessing the risks of endocrine disruptors.

“Endocrine disruptors can have serious health and environmental impacts,” commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement on Wednesday in which he also claimed the EU regulatory system is the first worldwide to define such scientific criteria in legislation. “We have to remain vigilant.”

The commission said that, while it was maintaining the hazard-based regulatory approach under the new measures, “the grounds for possible derogations have been adjusted so they are based on scientific knowledge and make the best use of available scientific evidence including information related to exposure and risk.” That part of the package upset Green groups.

‘Shameful Proposal’

“The only guiding priority under EU law should be to address the major public health problems caused by these chemicals,” said Bas Eickhout, a Dutch member of the European Parliament’s Green Party. “However, the commission is continuing to put the bottom line of a few agrochemical companies ahead of public health.”

The proposal must be approved by EU governments under a decision-making procedure that also gives the 28-nation Parliament a veto right. Eickhout held out the possibility of a rejection by the assembly.

“We will now have to build the necessary majorities in the Parliament to veto this shameful proposal,” he said.

The main European agricultural-lobby group, Copa-Cogeca, reacted to the commission’s proposal by echoing the concerns of the pesticides industry. Copa-Cogeca urged a risk-based approach to EU regulation and said more restrictions would undermine the competitiveness of European farmers.

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