Health and the Environment: European research on endocrine disrupters receives major boost

Europe’s leading researchers on human health and wildlife impacts of endocrine disrupters will be brought together under a new research “cluster” supported by DG Research which is to contribute €20 million. This cluster project will provide a critical mass for new and existing research on endocrine disrupters and their effect on human health and on the environment. Endocrine disrupters are suspected of causing problems for human health and wildlife. For instance, cases have been reported of fish, frogs and alligators changing sex as a result of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in polluted aquatic environments.

“This research will complement ongoing efforts to assess the risks posed by chemicals in our environment and provide a direct contribution to the European Union’s Community Strategy for Endocrine Disrupters. It is essential that we base our policies and regulations on sound science and that we invest in the reinforcement of our scientific capabilities to test chemicals on possible endocrine disruptive characteristics”, stated Commissioner for Research Philippe Busquin.

What are endocrine disrupters?

The endocrine system co-ordinates the activities of the organs in the body. Endocrine organs, such as the testes, ovaries, adrenal, pancreas, pituitary, thyroid and parathyroid, produce and release hormones to the bloodstream. Hormones are present in extremely low concentrations and they act in specific organs. Over the last thirty years, evidence has accumulated that a variety of chemicals, including natural and synthetic hormones (also phytoestrogens), pesticides, additives used by the plastic industry, surfactants and persistent environmental pollutants like polychlorinated aromatic hydrocarbons (eg: PCBs and dioxins) can mimic or disrupt hormone action. These types of substances are known collectively as endocrine disrupters. They can act, for example, through interference with the synthesis, secretion or action of natural hormones in the body that are responsible for the maintenance of homeostasis, reproduction, development and/or behaviour. Therefore, exposure to these substances could affect different organs in the body, with a number of harmful consequences, such as lowered sperm counts for humans or change in sex for animals.

Endocrine disrupters have been shown to disrupt the endocrine systems of animals in laboratory studies, and there is evidence that they cause developmental abnormalities and reproductive impairment in certain fish and wildlife in polluted waters. The relationship between endocrine related human malfunctions and diseases, such as cancer, and exposure to contaminants is poorly understood and has only recently being investigated in a more systematic manner. However, gaps remain in our knowledge of the mechanisms and substances involved and extensive research is needed.

European policy

European policy regarding endocrine disrupters is outlined out by the Community Strategy for Endocrine Disrupters (COM(1999)706 final), adopted by the Commission in December 1999 and supported by the Council and the Parliament, as well as by the follow-up communication on its implementation . In its medium-term actions, the strategy identifies research and development as one of three priorities, the other two being Identification and assessment of endocrine disrupters and Identification of substitutes and voluntary initiatives.

Research
In response to this strategic need and to tackle the knowledge gap concerning these chemicals, the European Commission allocated a budget of €20 millions for research on the health and environment implications of endocrine disrupters. This dedicated call for proposals for research projects was organised jointly by the DG Research Quality of Life and Environment and Sustainable Development programmes. Following evaluation 4 excellent projects were proposed for funding and regrouped into a “cluster”:

EDEN: Endocrine Disrupters: exploring novel end-points, exposure, low-dose and mixture-effects in humans, aquatic wildlife and laboratory animals (22 partners in 10 countries, €8.7 million EC contribution).
COMPRENDO: Comparative research on endocrine disrupters – Phylogenetic approach and common principles focusing on androgenic/antiandrogenic compounds (13 partners in 9 countries, €3.3 million EC contribution).

EURISKED: Multi-organic risk assessment of selected endocrine disrupters (10 partners in 8 countries, €3.1 million EC contribution).

FIRE: Risk assessment of brominated flame retardants as suspected endocrine disrupters for human and wildlife health (19 partners in 7 countries, €4.9 million EC contribution).
For more information, see annex.

This cluster co-ordinated by the EDEN project will involve 64 organisations in Europe and covers a wide range of expertise and disciplines to create the necessary “critical mass” of knowledge. The cluster is to become a point of reference of European research in this field and its activities will be open to other ongoing or future EU-funded projects in the field. Thus, the cluster approach provides an indication of the integrated project, which is a new funding instrument proposed for the Sixth Framework programme (2002-2006). Other ongoing and future projects on endocrine disrupters will also be associated with the “cluster” in a more informal way (participation at workshops etc) to further enhance the focus and co-ordination of EU research support.

An interface between scientists and policy-makers

One of the objectives of the cluster is to establish an interface between scientists and policy-makers, as this is an area with major policy and regulatory implications. For instance this initiative can contribute to the development of the new EU policy on chemicals presented in the Commission White Paper: Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy (COM(2001)88 final) .

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