How natural and man-made substances interfere with growth and hormonal development in humans and wildlife is a complex field of study, still riddled with uncertainty about the agents' adverse affects on endocrine systems. Investigation of so-called ‘endocrine disrupters' (ED) has been a focus of EU funding since the late 1990s. However, there is a pressing need to widen international collaboration on ED research and to coordinate regulation and assessment procedures – both within the EU and across the globe – as a recent European Commission-sponsored workshop attests.
Endocrine disrupters are substances that can play havoc with an organism's growth, health and reproductive capability. They come in pharmaceuticals, man-made chemicals in the air, soil and water, and can be found in consumer products, such as detergents and solvents. In large enough quantities and over enough time, endocrine disrupters have been linked to male infertility, female reproductive diseases, early onset of puberty, and more. In wildlife, evidence suggests that they are behind decreasing seal and alligators populations, the thinning of bird shells and certain adverse affects on fish reproduction and development.
|Exposure to endocrine disrupting substances might come from different sources, including cosmetics.|
While the effects of high-level exposure to the disrupters are increasingly known, the real challenge is to determine the human and animal health implications of long-term, low-level exposure to EDs and, in particular, what multiple exposure to many disrupters at the same time may produce. Indeed, most exposure studies have focused on the presence of so-called ‘persistent organic pollutants' in lakes, rivers and seas. But there are other sources of exposure too: industrial processes, incineration of waste and the chemicals used in ostensibly innocuous consumer products, such as cosmetics, skin creams and suntan lotion.
The complexity of tracking and analysing the complicated compote of EDs through which humans and wildlife move each day demands a division of labour. It also requires careful coordination of the results of scientific inquiry to better inform policy-makers and to help define future regulations.
It is important to strengthen the dissemination of results of endocrine disrupter research activities supported at national, EU and international levels, suggested Pierre Valette of DG Research's environment unit at a workshop on the subject held earlier this year in Brussels. The event was organised by the Research DG's policy unit on biotechnology, agriculture and food. The integration of international actions in this area is also important, and the Commission's services have been actively involved in these initiatives, he told delegates.
How to boost R&D collaboration
Entitled ‘Enhanced International Collaboration in the field of Endocrine Disrupters: How to do it in practice?', the one-day event was attended by 73 participants from European research institutes and universities, industry, non-governmental organisation and consumer groups, intergovernmental bodies and EU institutes. Though the Commission has sponsored ED-related research projects to the tune of over €100 million in 2005 alone, workshop participants agreed there is a strong imperative to better coordinate this with the research programmes of Member States and international health organisations. This would lead to faster dissemination of research results and better regulatory standards in the field of consumer health.
The workshop's recently completed report offers extensive recommendations on future research and regulatory priorities, and the need for international collaboration to investigate the effects of ED. These include consolidating the human and ecological research aspects of ED into one research priority in the EU's forthcoming Seventh Research Framework Programme, investigating the long-term consequences of in utero imprinting, and developing cheap but reliable screening tools to detect ED substances in the environment, feed and food.
The report also recommends focusing more research on arctic regions whose human and wildlife populations exhibit the highest level of EDs in the world, pursuing globally harmonised and validated test methods and assessment schemes, and creating new guidelines for classifying borderline substances.
European Commission, Research DG