"Writing on the wall" for hormone chemicals

UK agency calls on industries making, using, endocrine disrupters to consider alternatives

"The writing is on the wall" for industrial hormone-disrupting chemicals, the Environment Agency of England and Wales said today, in one of the strongest official statements of concern over the issue to be made in Europe.

Releasing the clearest evidence yet collected of a direct link between environmental levels of hormone (or endocrine) disrupters and effects on wildlife, the agency said that some action was needed, and that industry users should consider "lower-toxicity" alternative chemicals.

A wide variety of chemicals, both natural and man-made, are known to be capable of interfering with animal endocrine systems, potentially affecting growth, reproductive or other processes. International concern is growing, but there is still little firm knowledge on which to base policy. Last year, German environment minister Angela Merkel made a strong plea for more research on the issue, but drew no immediate policy lessons (ENDS Daily 6 July 1997).

Taking a strongly precautionary approach, the English and Welsh Environment Agency said today that it was time to act. "We don't know everything, but the more we look, the more we see," the agency's chief scientist Jan Pentreath told journalists in London this morning. The message for industry was uncompromising: "You know what you are using. We want you to say now if you really need to use these chemicals. Start thinking about it now."

A large number of industry sectors could potentially be affected by any concerted move to replace or phase out hormone-disrupting chemicals. Top of the agency's priority list released today is the water industry, which is responsible for large releases of natural and man-made chemicals that mimic (or actually are) the female sex hormone oestrogen.

Others include textile processing, plastics manufacturing, pesticide production and use, waste incineration, shipyards, timber processes, metal production and fuel combustion. Chemicals on the agency's initial priority list of hormone disrupters include a variety of pesticides, phthalate plasticisers, bi-phenolic resin components such as bisphenol-A, organotins such as the anti-fouling agent tributyl tin, alkylphenol ethoxylates (APE) surfactants, and synthetic steroids such as ethinyl oestradiol used in the female contraceptive pill.

The agency's strong tone today was influenced by new scientific research showing a clear link between oestrogenic chemicals in English and Irish rivers and "feminisation" of male roach, a common British freshwater fish. Project leader John Sumpter of Brunel University described the three-year project as "probably the most extensive study on wild populations worldwide".

Both Professor Sumpter and the agency now say that the study has shown more widespread effects of oestrogenic chemicals than they had expected. In some rivers, one hundred per cent of male roach sampled downstream of a sewage treatment plant had testes containing precursors of eggs as well as sperm.

Follow Up:
Environment Agency of England and Wales, tel: +44 1454 624 400.

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