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How industry lobbying effects public health

(Photograph: Nessa Childers MEP with journalist Stephane Horel and MEP Charles Goerens, during a debate on industry lobbying – broadcast by the French international news channel France 24 Oct 2015

Blog

Wednesday 21 Oct 2015

Industry lobbying is effective and well resourced, and as a result influences what decisions are made at EU level. The chemical industry sector has a proven track record of slowing down policy and law making processes, exaggerating the economic impact of public interest regulations and trying to skew our perceptions of the state of the art on scientific research on health risks.

Take the example of endocrine disrupting and chemical industry strategies.

We are surrounded by endocrine disruptors (EDCs), everywhere, in our daily lives, and there is no avoiding them when they are present in plastics, cosmetics, pesticides, computers and materials used to build our homes, including carpets. We’ve so far identified about a 1000 but there are bound to be at least as many unknown ones as of yet.

The exposure to very small quantities can be enough to upset the very delicate hormonal balance of humans and other living organisms, with a severe impact on human health and the environment. They interfere with oestrogen, testosterone, and your thyroid.

Conditions ranging from obesity, diabetes through infertility, to cancer and abnormal brain development are linked to EDCs and have been estimated, earlier this year, by the Endocrine Society, to cost us upwards of €150 billion a year, across the EU alone.

You can measure the industry’s success in stalling regulatory action by the sheer amount of time – almost a decade – since we first set our sights on EDCs through EU law.

The REACH chemicals regulation dates back to 2006 mandated action, and likewise for the subsequent regulations governing pesticides and biocides.

I have served as an MEP since 2009 and, from the very start, added my voice to the chorus of colleagues who have been constantly pressuring the Commission to move forward on this, which amounts to no more than duly implementing EU law, but none of the prescribed deadlines have been met.

A DG Environment-commissioned study by independent experts was published 3 years ago, in 2012, and the World Health Organisation acknowledged that EDCs are a global threat which needs to be addressed.

Now, because these substances are hazardous and act at such low levels of exposure, we can’t simply carry out the usual risk assessments to determine safe levels of exposure, and we know that from independent scientists, who say that would be arbitrary and without any basis on science.

We should treat EDCs as ‘non-threshold’ chemicals, just as we do with other carcinogenic and toxic substances.

But business as usual is precisely what the industry wants, and they have been pushing their own sources and firepower to stall or prevent solutions that will force them to discard hazardous components from their products.

Recently, to make matters worse, scope for regulatory cooperation in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently under negotiation between the EU and the US has provided an extra front for their dilatory tactics aimed at keeping all products these industries make on the market for as long as possible, irrespective of the risks they pose to European consumers.

What should be done at EU level?

DG Environment had a proposal ready for publication back in mid-2013, based on the studies I mention above, and that was the right way to go forward, so that we’d at least have a proposal for scientific criteria to act on EDCs within the December 2013 deadline set by the pesticides regulation in 2009.

Instead, the chemical lobby went on a scaremongering rampage about costs and risks to crop yields that they brought all the way up to the then Secretary-General Catherine Day, my fellow countrywoman, based on impact assessments from the UK and Teagasc, the Irish agriculture and food development authority.

She imposed the preparation of an impact assessment in the Commission, effectively kicking the issue to touch.

Remarkably, among the concerns she cited were the impacts to international trade.

This, of course, means regulatory cooperation within TTIP. The chemical industries on both sides of the Atlantic loathe the precautionary principle and want a risk management approach to reign instead.

US pesticide lobbies go as far as defending that proper regulation of EDCs be challenged at the World Trade Organisation.

We know that through impact assessments, which take 12 to 15 months, you will easily quantify costs of regulation to currently established business models but it is extremely hard to quantify all the benefits to society from improved health and environmental protection, which sometimes take decades to come to full fruition, if the regulatory regimes survive.

The way this delay was brought about is a disgraceful rosary of the all the tactics in the book that the chemical industries employed to hinder and obfuscate necessary regulation. For example:

There were manifest conflicts of interest in European Food Safety Authority research; industry-linked academics attacking the work of independent researchers; revolving doors in the offices of MEPs who were active against EDC regulation; divide and conquer tactics that pitted parts of the EU civil service against others.

EFSA, late last month, published a report where they raise ‘critical concern’, in their own words, over the endocrine disrupting properties of 15 pesticides, of which 10 have been in the market beyond their authorisation period, and the DG SANTE experts are preparing the ground for a renewal.

Under the Barroso II Commission, DG Environment was prevented from doing their job on EDCs, and the Junker Commission rewarded DG SANTE for a role that could be described as the industries’ useful idiots by putting them in charge of EDCs. Meanwhile, the impact assessment on EDCs will be finished at some stage in 2016.

To attempt to stop this interference and lack of openness I am steering an opinion from the Environment Committee on Transparency, Integrity and Accountability in the EU institutions, to inform the lead Committee’s work on that file here in Parliament.

I am recommending a number of overall changes to the way scientific expertise is drawn upon by the Commission and specialised EU agencies.

There is an imbalance in the nature of the interests represented in Commission expert groups, and there are misleading registration practices of economic interests that also mask their relative weight and influence.

The Commission should ensure that the membership of expert groups and similar entities providing is accurately and consistently balanced and their interests identified.

We need the Commission should issue public calls for the selection of all expert group membership, which should be contingent on their registration in the Transparency Register.

OECD Guidelines on Managing Conflict of Interest in the Public Service exist and should be upheld. There also needs to be due diligence in the screening for conflicts of interest, rather than simply relying on what we are told or, more critically, not told.

If we emulate the example of the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which had to learn from its own mistakes, this would allow us to draw on all necessary expertise, yet still impose boundaries on the influence of certain interests, by establishing the status of ‘invited specialists’ precluding those with actual, potential or apparent conflicts of interest from the voting and drafting prerogatives of expert group members.

The European Ombudsman recently ruled, to no surprise of those who follow the pernicious influence of the tobacco lobby on public health policy, that the Commission committed maladministration in its dealings with the sector.

So, it’s urgent that all the relevant EU institutions properly implement Article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, limiting their contacts to the strict minimum to regulate the industry, and those be conducted with utmost transparency. The reality is unfortunately the opposite as we saw in the recent ‘redact-gate’ response to an access to documents request that raises many questions about the influence of big tobacco over the Commission’s trade policy.

ENDs

Nessa Childers MEP is a member of the European Parliament’s Enviornment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee, and is author of the ENVI opinion on the Constitutional Affairs Committee report on transparency and integrity in the EU institutions.

(Photograph: Nessa Childers MEP with journalist Stephane Horel and MEP Charles Goerens, during a debate on industry lobbying – broadcast by the French international news channel France 24)