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Sunday, December 6, 1998 Published at 02:25 GMT


Brussels 'backing down' on gender benders

Campaigners say there is evidence that otters' fertility has been affected by EDCs

By BBC News Online's Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

A European Union draft working paper on endocrine disrupters - chemicals which damage the hormone system in wildlife and humans - has been seriously watered down before publication.

The chemicals, known as EDCs, or "gender benders", are dispersed through air, water and soil. They are known to be causing damage in species as far apart as polar bears in the Arctic, alligators in Florida and fish in British rivers.

EDCs interrupt the hormone system, the body's natural chemical messengers, and are linked with cancer and behavioural problems. They also lead to abnormalities in the reproductive system, including shrunken genitals and impaired fertility.

[ image: Falling sperm counts could be linked to EDCs]
Falling sperm counts could be linked to EDCs
Some species of fish and shellfish affected by EDCs have developed the genitals of both sexes.

'May be affecting fertility'

There are fears the chemicals are to blame for a decline in human sperm counts and a rise in breast, prostate and testicular cancer.

But although many scientists and some governments - including Britain's - accept that EDCs are to blame, the EU paper refuses to go so far.

It says they are a "general cause for concern", and says there is "suspicion" they are damaging the health of both humans and wildlife.

The document says there is a "clear need to conduct further research in order to definitely establish whether there is a causal link between the health effects seen in humans and wildlife and exposure to specific chemicals."

Back in September the working paper was prepared to take a much stronger line and to accept as proven the link between EDCs and damage to health.

The paper has been drawn up by three EU directorates: DG 11, which is responsible for the environment, DG 3, the industry directorate and DG 24, which looks after consumer affairs.

'Pressure from chemical industry'

Elizabeth Salter is the international toxics co-ordinator for the World Wide Fund for Nature.

She says the paper has probably been watered down after pressure from the chemical industry and from DG 3.

Ms Salter said: "This paper is weak. The European Commission is pussyfooting around - it's not prepared to stick its neck out and look after the welfare of EU consumers."

EDCs are found in water pipes, tin cans, car dashboards and sealants used in dentistry.

They also occur in food, some plastics, paint, detergents and cosmetics.

[ image: Some EDCs are used in the manufacture of plastic bottles]
Some EDCs are used in the manufacture of plastic bottles
Ironically some EDCs are used in the manufacture of plastic bottles, making bottled water arguably more risky to drink than tap water.

Ms Salter said: "There is no mechanism in the working paper for action on currently known EDCs which are affecting you and me today."

"The MEPs' reports which led to the writing of the paper called specifically for a list of EDCs. It doesn't have one.

"It does not tackle the question of multiple exposure, what happens when you're exposed to more than one EDC and they interact? So you cannot start setting safe exposure limits.

The working paper will shortly go out for consultation and will then be used as the basis for drafting EU legislation.

But environmentalists say there is little prospect of effective legislation against EDCs until the lawmakers are prepared to admit the extent of the problem.

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