Press Release: WHO/UNEP strongly endorse need to regulate as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) identified as ‘global threat’

Press Release, Immediate release, Alliance for Cancer Prevention20/2/13

WHO/UNEP strongly endorse need to regulate as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) identified as ‘global threat’.

edc_coverA new report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) comprehensively reviews the state of the science on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).  It outlines the very serious and immediate threat to human health and wildlife from EDCs and signals the urgent need for effective regulation and testing of these chemicals.

The report estimates that as much as 24% of human diseases and disorders are due at least in part to environmental factors which include chemical exposures. “Many endocrine diseases and disorders are on the rise and the speed at which they are increasing rules out genetic factors as the sole plausible explanation”.

The Alliance is concerned that the one of the most worrying assessments from the report is that we are only looking at the ‘tip of the iceberg’ on this issue. Some 800 chemicals are known or suspected of interfering with our hormones.  Yet only a small fraction of these chemicals have been tested.  We are exposed to EDCs through everyday contact in our workplaces or homes to certain plastic products, cosmetics, furniture, computers, toys, construction materials and other products, materials and goods. We are exposed through the food we eat, the water we drink and the very air we breathe. EDCs may also be by-products formed during manufacture or use of products or through the disposal and combustion of waste.

Current testing does not take into account our multiple and cumulative exposures to EDCs and the fact that their effects cannot be considered in isolation. Their impacts on our health are being observed across our lifespan from conception in the womb through to old age. With EDCs, there are no safe levels and the report states that “thresholds” should not be assumed.

Diseases and disorders induced by exposure to EDCs during development in animal model and human studies include: Breast/prostate cancer, endometriosis, infertility, diabetes/metabolic syndrome, early puberty, obesity, susceptibility to infections, autoimmune disease, asthma, heart disease/hypertension, stroke, Alzheimer and Parkinson’s disease, ADHD and learning disabilities.

As the endocrine system regulates all our bodily functions, EDCs can interfere with normal body functions in multiple ways including impacting our metabolism, fat storage, bone development and immune system and this suggests that..” all endocrine systems can and will be affected by EDCs”, and these effects may be passed on to future generations.

The WHO report says that “‘it is critical to move beyond the piecemeal, one chemical at a time, one disease at a time, one dose approach currently used by scientists studying animal models, humans or wildlife. Understanding the effects of the mixtures of chemicals to which humans and wildlife are exposed is increasingly important”. EDCs can operate at extremely low unobservable levels and in combination. The strength of attraction of an endocrine disruptor to a hormone doesn’t equate to its strength as a chemical. Its potency or strength to affect our hormone system is dependent on many factors.

The Alliance believes the implications for public health are enormous, and for the focus of our work, cancer risk.  Currently addressed lifestyle risk factors for cancer will alone not curtail rising incidences and deaths, which will continue to escalate unless affirmative action is taken on EDCs. Neglect of the environmental and occupational risk factors for cancer skews research on cancer causation and with EDCs implicated in obesity their potential to affect even so called lifestyle factors for cancer is obvious.

The Alliance calls for an effective strategy on EDCs from the EU parliament taking advantage of the opportunity in March with the vote on EDCs in parliament. There is the potential to make history by making sure these harmful chemicals are removed from our homes, workplaces and wider environment.

How will this affect strategies to prevention cancer?

The WHO/UNEP report follows hot on the heels of another paper published in advance in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), which is relevant in so far as the authors include the WHO Director of Public Health and the Environment.

That paper assesses “Primary prevention of cancer of environmental and occupational origin reduces cancer incidence and mortality, and is highly cost effective; in fact, it is not just socially beneficial because it reduces medical and other costs, but because it avoids many human beings suffering from cancer.”

“A substantial proportion of all cancers is attributable to carcinogenic exposures in the environment and the workplace, and is influenced by activities in all economic and social sectors. Many of these exposures are involuntary but can be controlled or eliminated through enactment and enforcement of proactive strategies for primary prevention.’

It concludes: ‘Currently, the almost exclusive focus of cancer policies in most countries is on secondary prevention (ie. early detection), diagnosis and treatment. Too little resources are devoted to primary prevention, which aims to eliminate or control exposures to environmental and occupational carcinogens… The prevailing approach is socially unfair and often unsustainable, especially in low and middle income countries.’ It adds: ‘There is sufficient evidence that primary prevention is feasible and highly effective in reducing cancer incidence.’

While the Alliance welcomes the WHO/UNEP report, we look forward to seeing action in response to the report’s call for reducing the exposures to EDCs by a variety of measures. Initiatives such as introducing Toxics Use Reduction Acts, promoting green chemistry and substitution, and a precautionary approach in regulating EDCs could be immediate responses. Coupled with a coherent and effective EU EDC strategy on banning, phase out and eliminating human exposure to EDCs. We are particularly interested in how the cancer establishment will address the issue of EDCs in all strategies to preventing cancer.

When we consider the far reaching consequences of inaction on EDCs, the platitudes in relation to other global threats pale into insignificance. Some say the threat is even greater than that of climate change, given EDCs ability to affect fertility, foetal development, the brain and behaviour. We are changing the very landscape of the womb and adversely affecting the abilities of future generations. Leaving aside the financial costs of inaction on EDCs, the human cost is unthinkable, to not act now is to be complicit.

The Alliance for Cancer Prevention is a multi-stakeholder group which includes representatives from NGOs, environmental and occupational health organisations, trade unions, public health advocates and civil society groups.

T @Cancer_Alliance
Tel: 07960033687

Notes to editor:

  1. State of the Science for Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals. Report can be downloaded here:
  2. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) are chemicals which can affect our Endocrine System (the bodies messenger system) and other bodily functions, which co-ordinates reproduction, development, growth, mood, and what happens in our cells to help our bodies and organs function normally.
  3. Current risk factors for cancer include: tobacco, diet and obesity, infections, radiation (both ionizing and non-ionizing, up to 10%), stress, lack of physical activity, hereditary genes, physical agents, chemicals, and hormones.
  4. Environmental and occupational risk factors are potential risk factors from exposure to certain chemicals, substances, or particles (either occupational or environmental) and absorbed in utero (pre birth) or through breathing, touching, and eating, which contribute to a cancer outcome by nature of their carcinogenic, mutagenic or endocrine disrupting abilities.
  5. Espina C, Porta M, et al. Environmental and Occupational Interventions for Primary Prevention of Cancer: A Cross-Sectorial Policy Framework. Environ Health Perspect.  Advanced publication here.
  6. Dr. Theo Colborn’s letter to President Obama, watch it here.
  7. Toxic Use Reduction. Replacing toxic substances with safer alternatives or processes.
  8. Sign the petition to get EDCs out of consumer goods: here