Connie Hedegaards tale ved international forskerworkshop om hormonforstyrrende stoffer 2007

Speech for Connie Hedegaard, Danish Minister for the Environment, at the 4th Copenhagen Workshop on Endocrine Disrupters, May 29th 2007.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour and a pleasure for me to address this distinguished gathering.

Copenhagen is beautiful these days. It is springtime. The air is thick with hormones, and we all benefit from their impact.

Unfortunately, hormones in the wrong amount, in the wrong place and at the wrong time can have very negative effects. And I am grateful that you have come to Copenhagen to help to sorting this out.

Endocrine disrupters in consumer products

The use of chemicals has become an indispensable part of modern life. But we don’t know nearly enough of their long term consequences for health and the environment. What we do know, - thanks to your efforts – is that the possible consequences of endocrine disruption are of great concern.

Since the term endocrine disrupter was coined, they have been the subject of much research. But we still lack a lot of basic knowledge about their impact. And the question of what endocrine disrupters in consumer products may do to human health has caused a lot of concern - among citizens, authorities and in Parliament. So today’s workshop is well placed.

It is only 3 weeks ago, we had a debate on the need for action on a number of products in the Danish Parliament – especially products for children and cosmetics. I am often faced with demands for a ban of specific chemicals or their use in certain types of products.

Setting priorities

So I am fully aware of the many missing pieces in the big puzzle of “Endocrine Disrupters”. I understand and share the concerns of the general public; but I have to follow a policy based on a solid, scientific basis – supplemented by the use of the “precautionary principle,” of course, when it is deemed necessary by concerned scientists.

Environmental policies must be based on science; - chemicals policies even more than most areas. And concerned as I am, it is good to note the progress you have made since the last workshop in Copenhagen in 2005.

When faced with serious and complex problems such as endocrine disrupters, you need clear priorities. Scientific hypotheses and suspicions have to be made into more certain knowledge – particularly about cause- and dose-relationships, - to provide a qualified basis for action.

Experience shows, that this is necessary to come to an agreement on political regulation. Danish scientific data on phthalates have provided the basis for the EU-ban on phthalates in toys, for example, and we have provided the basis for a number of EU-bans on the use of various substances in cosmetic products.

State of the science

November last, an EU-workshop took stock on the “state of the science” and it is evident that some endocrine disrupters cause serious reproductive effects in animals – and it is very likely, that this is the case in humans as well. A truly frightening scenario and one we really need to be concerned about.

But the truth is, that we still don’t know for sure, for example, what causes the decrease in the semen quality in young men. Their mother’s smoking during pregnancy, eating habits, exposure to endocrine disrupters and exposure to other environmental factors may all be guilty – and may be all of them together.

And from reproductive health we have begun to investigate the role of endocrine disrupters in the development of an number of other conditions: On diabetes, for example and on mammary and prostate cancer as well as developmental effects: Some of them maybe in risk of being transmitted to our children and even following generations.

We take the problem seriously

With all of this in mind, I really do understand that some of you are becoming impatient and critical of the speed at which political progress is being made. That you may have the feeling, that authorities go to far in the degree of certainty they demand, before they are willing to act – even with the “precautionary principle” in mind.

I can assure you that I take it very seriously when scientists give the alarm as they did in the Prague declaration two years ago. But the plain fact is that the lack of a firm scientific basis for a cause- and dose-effect relationship makes it very difficult to arrive at a political consensus on the right course of action – in the EU and beyond in our international co-operation.

Substitution

In any event, we work hard on having chemicals with potential endocrine disrupting properties substituted, as soon as new scientific data come forward. But I have to tell you, that substitution is not always that simple; - in many cases, because we don’t have sufficient knowledge on the effects of the alternatives. We have to look at the problem in its entirety.

Combination effects

Recently, the Danish public was shaken by the results from new studies on the combination-effects of endocrine disrupters; – a Danish contribution to the EU EDEN-project.

But we cannot act responsibly on the basis of a single article from a technical journal, so I have urged to wait for the overall conclusions of the entire EDEN project. On that basis, we will then consider the need for new regulatory initiatives – including the need for a new concept for risk assessment of endocrine disrupters - and maybe – for chemicals in general.

International Co-operation

The production and use of chemicals is a large and complex area and international cooperation is essential to make progress. We need applied research and sharing of information in constructive collaboration between scientists and regulatory bodies at the national and at the international level – in the EU, in the OECD and globally. This is particularly important for small countries, but the fact is, that even the largest countries don’t have the capacity to cover the area in its entirety.

Internationally accepted test methods

One of the most important topics on the regulatory agenda is the need for internationally accepted test methods to determine if a substance has endocrine disrupting effects. I look very much forward to the results from the OECD test guideline programme on that score, and I urge all Member States to contribute to the best of their ability.

EU-strategy for endocrine disrupters

The “cost-of-inaction” for endocrine disrupters – in terms of human and environmental health, now and in the future, - may run very high. And I must admit that I am not impressed by the progress made on the EU- Strategy from 1999.

The research programmes have worked well, though, and when the EDEN-project is finalised later this year, I will ask the Commissioner for his assessment of the regulatory consequences of the studies, in order to speed up the process.

EU-REACH

Europe will enter a new era on Friday when REACH comes into force. I am confident, that the reversal of the burden of proof will have a huge impact on manufacturers, importers and downstream users, when they become responsible for documenting that their chemicals can be used without any significant risk.

Denmark has worked very hard to have the strictest control on the substances of highest concern; – and in my opinion endocrine disrupters are among those substances. They will be included in the REACH authorisation procedure by a case-by-case assessment.

REACH recognizes the information gap on endocrine disrupters and opens the possibility for a revision after 6 years. At that time, I hope we will succeed in having mandatory substitution for them made part of the regulation. So it is very much up to you, to provide the studies we need to make that happen.

Danish Strategy

In Denmark , I recently presented a status on our own work with endocrine disrupters to Parliament. Our three focal areas are

  • knowledge building and the development of test methods,
  • action-oriented investigations, and
  • regulation.

Very much in line with the EU-strategy.

Our work is progressing well, and we have given the development of test methods as a contribution to the OECD test guideline programme the highest priority.

Public Information campaign – “9 good habits”

But we are not just waiting for better test methods and new knowledge on endocrine disrupters. We can do a lot to reduce the exposure to potentially harmful chemicals with the knowledge we already have.

To me, providing ordinary citizens with appropriate information and the tools they need to take responsibility for their own actions is crucial. On the internet, my Ministry provides information and advice on chemicals, and last year, I launched an information campaign specifically aimed at pregnant women and nursing mothers to inform them of the potential hazards of chemicals in baby products, toys and cosmetics.

The campaign provided nine simple guidelines to enable them to avoid chemical exposure, - with particular emphasis on endocrine disrupters and sensitizing substances. We advised them to buy unscented products for the baby; to wash new toys and baby-clothes before using them; to use cosmetics and skin creams sparingly, avoids spraying cans and paints and to refrain from dyeing their hair.

A recent evaluation of the campaign shoved, that it did in fact alter the habits of pregnant women and nursing mothers and even influenced the assortment of products in many shops.

Conclusion

But it can’t be denied, that the big hurdle for policy makers and authorities is the gaps in knowledge about cause-effect relationship of endocrine disrupters and their impact on health and the environment.

Danish researchers are at the front of international research and have contributed a lot to focus the attention of politicians and the general public on the disturbing problems from endocrine disrupters.

So I am proud to be able to welcome all of you to Copenhagen - and grateful to Professor Skakkebæk and his colleagues for organizing this important workshop.

I look very much forward to hearing of your results, and to work for the follow-up to your research, - in Denmark and – especially – in the EU. It may very soon be about time to call the precautionary principle to the mind of colleagues. Please, give us the tools we need to take effective action.

I wish you a fruitful and enjoyable workshop.

Thank you for your attention.