Endocrine disruptors – where are we headed and what can we learn?

There are a number of public affairs issues which hold lessons beyond their immediate impacts. One of these currently is a debate in Europe and North America about the ability of certain chemicals to disrupt human hormone systems.

A stakeholder conference was recently held in Brussels. As the dust settles, we outline the trends and download some of the discussions and observations from the corridors.

1. Much of the campaigning work is being conducted by ‘campaigning’ scientists in addition to environment groups. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but we are seeing it increasing to new levels.

‘What you have to realise is, there is a small group of scientists who have found a pot of gold. EDCs and cocktail effects will supply funding for years to come. Brainstorm what your commercial plan would be if you were looking for funding, and you will have mapped out the study-publicity-funding-study cycle for the next five years.’

‘What is interesting about this issue is that campaigning scientists, more than environment groups, are providing the feedback loop between Europe and North America.  This trend may catch on.’

2. The authorities in Brussels will attempt to resolve the issue within the regulatory system, but the issue is politically delicate and this will lead to increasing contortions.

‘There is a fight between the UK and German governments on one side, and Denmark and France on the other. The thrust of the Commission’s decision-making will not be on the technical merits of the case, but on who they think will win this fight.’

‘A key question is, will the impact land on chemicals as a whole, or on a group of usual suspects? For the answer look to what happened in REACH: a horse-trade which lessened the burden on bulk chemicals and intensified the focus on speciality chemicals. So too here – BPA, parabens et al will be the agreed poster children that suffer for all the others.’

3. A number of different sectors are potentially impacted, from crops to pharma, chemicals, medical devices and FMCG. Where will the impacts land, and will different sectors co-operate or push their individual agendas? It is possible a version of the contraceptive pill will be under scrutiny: how will this change the debate?

‘Will sectors be treated equally or differently? Don’t only ask which parts of the regulatory system are horizontal and which are vertical. Ask how much consumers interact with each sector.  What does this mean for pesticides, biocides, pharmaceuticals, consumer products?  What happens if one sector complains in public about disparity?’

‘What happens when it becomes more widely known that versions of ‘the pill’ are caught in some of the stricter criteria? The worst fears of the pharmaceutical industry could yet turn out to be the issue that forces compromise. Environment groups know that women are a key constituency and are already starting to tread carefully.’

4. As the issue becomes politicised and media coverage increases, the communication around it will have to change, and go beyond the technicalities.

‘We’re back to the old distinction between exposure and hazard. Communicators know that all chemical campaigning is driven not by the ratio between the two, but by pointing to extreme hazard or extreme exposure. So here, the answer will be biomonitoring – the drip drip of findings will drive the media coverage. Tell me then that the public will accept the difference between a mechanism and an effect.’

The regulatory process moves ahead. But all stakeholders, including the European Commission itself, are now starting to war-game the politics of this, not the process…those who are planning for this will win.

July 18th, 2012