For quite some time, European policymakers have been working on a plan to regulate endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). In the last few months, the process has sparked a furor among researchers and public health experts, with a heated battle of editorials raging in scientific journals that highlights clear conflicts of interest among those critiquing European action.
EDCs are compounds that alter the hormonal systems in an organism, and many of these chemicals are in widespread use. If the European Union (EU) regulates EDCs, it will be the first policy in the world that addresses the endocrine disruptor problem.
Hormones play a key role in our development and reproduction, among other processes essential for life. One prime example is the key sex hormone estrogen, which is critical to normal reproductive function.
The EU has taken steps to define EDCs based on scientific criteria, so they can move forward toward regulation. This set off a heated public debate.
It all started when...
In June, a leaked document containing recommendations from the European Commission (EC) on criteria for defining endocrine disruptors, and identified the need for "appropriate policy action on the basis of the precautionary principle" to address the "problem" of endocrine disruptors. The document quoted a new EC expert review that:
... identified the lack of agreed criteria for the identification of endocrine disruptors as one of the greatest obstacles in the implementation of policy measures aiming to protect human health and the environment from exposure to endocrine disruptors.
The backlash was swift. In the period from July to September, 18 toxicology journal editors signed an editorial that was published in 14 scientific journals. They titled the editorial by Dietrich et al "Scientifically unfounded precaution drives European Commission's recommendations on EDC regulation, while defying common sense, well-established science and risk assessment principles."
I have a research background in comparative endocrinology. I found the Dietrich et al letter to be a bit much to swallow.
In late September, an Environmental Health News article reported that 17 of those 18 scientists who came out so strongly against the proposal to regulate EDCs had "past or current ties to regulated industries."
"Science relies on trust."
I always imagined the scientific debates in earlier centuries to be this impassioned — for instance, Spallanzini collecting evidence that countered the theory of spontaneous generation in the 1700s — work that was definitively confirmed by Louis Pasteur a century later.
The nature of the debates these days might be better characterized by looking at who is influenced by what industry interests.
Perhaps most interesting about the whole kerfuffle is the fact that other scientists responded to the Dietrich et al. editorial in force. Leading researchers in the field wrote two editorials published in the journal Endocrinology.
Leading scientists called the Deitrich editorial a "profound disservice" to public health.
One was by Andrea Gore, editor-in-chief of Endocrinology, who stated that the Dietrich et al editorial "seeks to foment doubt on the relevance of EDCs," due to "unrelenting pressure from individuals and corporations with stakes in the status quo to keep doubt alive." She characterized the events over the summer and early fall as "one of the most remarkable experiences in my career."
The second Endocrinology editorial was signed by 20 editors-in-chief and 28 associate and senior editors of endocrine, neuroendocrine, environmental, and other peer-reviewed journals. They used some pretty heated language, closing with the following:
The letter by Dietrich et al does the European Commission, science—including the field of toxicology — and most importantly public health — a profound disservice.
Those two editorials made a big splash on their own. But there were two more editorials about the Dietrich et al letter in the journal Environmental Health, one which characterized the editorial as "in our opinion inaccurate and facturally incorrect," and another by two researchers in August, pointing out that
... conflict of interest declarations are important, especially in research publications that address issues of public concern and where financial and other interests may play a role. Science relies on trust...
Wow. On September 6, one of the scientists on the Dietrich et al editorial resigned from an EC scientific committee. He stated that his resignation was due to time constraints, but given the controversy around the editorial, it is an interesting coda to this story.
A little backstory to the brouhaha
In 2012, a game-changing review of endocrine disruptors on low doses and "non-monotonic dose response curves" was published. Non-monotonic dose response curves are an important characteristic of some EDCs, which makes determining a threshold at which a dose of a given chemical is "safe" impossible.
The review recommended that "fundamental changes in chemical testing and safety determination are needed to protect human health." Other reviews making more recommendations for incorporating EDCs into risk assessment have followed.
EPA's review of endocrine disruptors has been painfully slow.
This debate isn't new. For years, EPA has faced considerable criticism of the way they are evaluating endocrine disruptors. The agency's Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program evaluates chemicals separately from their current risk assessment framework. This has been a painfully slow process — even a well-studied chemical like the herbicide atrazine, which was listed in the first screening program list in 2009, has not yet had evaluation of its endocrine disrupting effects incorporated into its evaluation process.
EPA is tracking current issues around EDCs, with U.S. policy experts attending a 2012 EC-sponsored conference on endocrine disruptors that featured scientists from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences. But regulatory action on EDCs has still not taken place, and the slow pace of the screening program was critiqued back in 2011 by EPA's Office of Inspector General.
Scientists can be reluctant to speak out publicly as advocates, perhaps out of a fear of being perceived as biased. But there is a need for the public to hear from credible people who aren't in the business of selling the chemicals being evaluated.
In my opinion there has always been an unusual — and appropriate — undercurrent of advocacy in the endocrine disruptor research world. As the evidence on the harms of endocrine disruptors accumulated, scientists felt compelled to speak out relatively early on.
The public needs to hear from credible, independent scientists.
Our Stolen Future, a seminal text on endocrine disruption, was coauthored by journalist Dianne Dumanoski and scientists Theo Colborn and John Peterson Myers in 1996. Endocrine disruptor researchers like Professor Lou Guillette, who is best known for documenting endocrine disruption in the American alligator for over a decade, and Professor Tyrone Hayes, who led compelling research on atrazine, have been at the forefront of an ongoing public discussion about endocrine disruption and why we should care.
There's an important lesson in this story: policies based on independent science will better protect public health. Many researchers are publicly advocating the regulation of EDCs, and making policy recommendations to boot. The data on endocrine disruption are strong, and policymakers should follow the science.
If the EU does move forward with regulation of EDCs, I hope the U.S. will soon follow.