PM+: 'Decisive EU action' on endocrine disruptors could save billions

Replacing harmful chemicals could bring annual cost savings of €31bn by avoiding cases of diabetes, obesity, hormone-related cancers and infertility, says Genon K. Jensen.

By Genon K. Jensen

20 Jun 2014

Evidence that hormone-mimicking chemicals are linked to escalating human health problems has grown so strong over the past decade that the authoritative World Health Organisation has described the issue as a "global threat" that needs to be addressed.

That was last year, and although policy action on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) at EU level had been planned, the process has been plagued with delays. The legislative changes needed to protect people from exposure to these substances in food, cosmetics and plastic products have still not been made.

So, in an attempt to show the cost of inaction, the health and environment alliance (Heal) embarked on an assessment of the likely health effects associated with existing EDC exposure.

First, Heal commissioned environmental economists to calculate the costs of health problems linked to our hormones, scientifically identified as "endocrine-related". These were estimated at €636bn per year in the European Union. Heal then speculated on what the contributory proportion of these costs associated with exposure to EDCs might be. Drawing on findings of international studies addressing the "attributable factor", we suggested a range of between two and five per cent - with five per cent being equivalent to €31bn.

The report is not only about costs. It shows that health problems related to our hormones and endocrine system have been increasing rapidly. For example, breast cancer, which is predominantly a hormone-dependent disease, is now the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. Rates have risen rapidly in recent decades and one in eight women can now expect a diagnosis within her lifetime.

"By 2015, boys born in the UK will face three times as high a lifetime risk of developing prostate cancer as boys born in 1990"

Similarly, hormone-dependent prostate cancer is now the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men. By 2015, boys born in the UK will face three times as high a lifetime risk of developing prostate cancer as boys born in 1990.

Other signs of human hormone disruption are the rarely-discussed abnormalities in baby boys' genitals (penis deformities and undescended testicles), the increase in male infertility (due to low sperm count) and the fast rising rates of testicular cancer, which primarily affects young men.

Added to these worrying indicators is the now very wide prevalence of diabetes, another hormone-related condition. Approximately one in 17 EU citizens in the 20-79 age group now have diabetes, a condition which is devouring up to 10 per cent of health budgets in some member states.

One obstacle in raising awareness of this important public health issue is that while endocrine disrupting chemicals are harmful, their effects are not necessarily immediate - for example, exposure in utero may increase the risk of breast cancer later in life. In addition, the effects may depend on when the exposure happens - phases of rapid development, like the foetal period and puberty, can be more vulnerable than other periods.

Nevertheless, understanding and recognition of the problem has grown very rapidly. France has brought forward a national strategy on endocrine disruptors, and Sweden has become so frustrated by the delays at European level that it will sue the European commission.

The EU should now make the sensible and correct decision to take decisive action to phase out EDCs. In our report, Heal shows the massive potential health benefits both for today's and future generations in Europe. It is now up to the politicians to do what is right.