Endocrine disruptors are chemicals which impact on the hormone system of animals and humans. They have three cumulative characteristics: a hormonal function, an adverse effect, and a causality between the two.
The main characteristic compared to other chemicals is that we do not only look at the effect, but also at a mode of action. In fact, endocrine disruption is a relatively recent way of looking at the toxicity of chemicals, which helps to understand how certain adverse effects happen. The usual approach to defining the toxicity of chemical substances is "end points" – whether there is an adverse effect. The new, additional, element is the concept of "mode of action", the way in which a chemical substance has an impact.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defined in 2002 an Endocrine Disruptor as a substance or mixture that alters function(s) of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub) populations.
What is the issue at stake?
As awareness of endocrine disruptors grew, so did public and political interest.The Commission responded with a "Strategy for endocrine disruptors" in 1999. This set out a number of actions at EU level, with the short-term (research and international cooperation), mid-term (test methods) and long-term (regulatory) steps to take. The key objective was to adopt legally-binding scientific criteria to determine what an endocrine disruptor is. The Commission worked closely with Member States, got input from EU regulatory agencies, independent scientific committees advising the Commission, the Commission's in-house scientific body (the Joint Research Centre), and from multilateral and bilateral scientific and regulatory cooperation with third countries, as well as extensive contacts with stakeholders over the past 15 years. The discussions have shown the complexity of the topic: so too does the fact that no other country has so far adopted legally-binding scientific criteria to determine what an endocrine disruptor is. Against this background, the Commission conducted a thorough preparation of the measures by reconfirming its unequivocal commitment to the EU co-legislators to finalise its ongoing work and present the criteria before the summer 2016.
Are endocrine disruptors (EDS) already taken into account in EU legislation?
Yes. EU regulatory agencies, independent scientific committees, the Commission and Member States already look at endocrine disruptors. This work is regulated through sectorial legislation in areas including the human health (including for consumers and workers), animal health, and the environment. Examples are the EU legislation on occupational safety and health (where the legislation on chemical agents at work includes all chemical agents, including endocrine disruptors), food and feed safety (where toxicological risks, including those stemming from endocrine disruptors, are subject to comprehensive risk assessment), and consumer products (including for example cosmetics and toys, REACH), as well as environmental legislation. Moreover, in the specific areas of Biocides and Plant Protection Products the legislation already determines the regulatory consequences for endocrine disruptors and interim criteria are in place so far (please see next question).
How does EU legislation regulate endocrine disruptors (EDS) in Plant Protection Products and Biocidal Products?
The EU has one of the strictest systems in the world for the assessment of Plant Protection Products ("pesticides", e.g. herbicides) and Biocidal Products (e.g. hand disinfectants). Hundreds of substances have gone through, or are going through, a stringent scientific assessment process. The EU approval of a substance is only granted for a limited period of time (up to 15 years) and must be renewed regularly.
In practice, EU legislation requires that allchemicals used in Plant Protection Products (PPP) and Biocidal Products (BP) are approved at EU level before being placed on the market. This is called "prior approval". It means that all chemicals are allowed on the market - and for use – only once their safe use is proved according to a thorough scientific assessment. In addition, particularly hazardous substances which do not fall under specific derogations, like substances which may cause cancer, effects on reproduction, or endocrine disruptors are not even going through this risk-assessment but are per se not approved. Finally, in case of relevant new scientific and technical knowledge, approvals can be reconsidered at any time and their status can change into non-approval or a more restrictive condition of use. Because of this "prior approval" system, the extensive data requirements, and the hazard approach for decision making, the European legislation for Plant Protection Products and Biocidal Products is considered to be one of the most solid worldwide.
"Hazard-based" and "risk-based" decision making on chemicals: what is the regulatory context?
The regulation of chemical substances can be approached in two different ways: based on hazard or based on risk. A hazard-based approach regulates substances on the basis of their intrinsic properties, without taking account of the exposure to the substance. A risk-based approach factors in the exposure. In the area of chemical safety, there are several pieces of EU legislation that apply a hazard-based approach to toxicological safety, while others follow a risk-based approach. A common analogy used is from the animal kingdom: a lion is intrinsically a hazard, but a lion safely constrained in a zoo is not a risk, since there is no exposure.
However, the issue faced by the Commission in this exercise is to establish criteria to determine what is or is not an endocrine disruptor for the purposes of plant protection products and biocidal products – not to decide how to regulate these substances.
The EU regulation of pesticides and biocides is based, for some substances (for example, carcinogens) on hazard, not on risk, subject to very limited exceptions, where a risk assessment is conducted.
What will the criteria mean for the regulatory areas of Plant Protection Products and Biocidal Products?
The EU legislation for Plant Protection Products and Biocidal Products provides that active substances which are endocrine disruptors shall not be approved, unless – in the case of Plant Protection Products – there is negligible exposure or – in the case of Biocides – a negligible risk. In principle, the question whether an active substance is an endocrine disruptor would be assessed each time the substance is subject to an approval procedure or a renewal procedure at EU level. As mentioned, all active substances used in plant protection products and biocidal products are only approved for a limited period of time, and their approvals are routinely reviewed.
It is important to stress that some of the adverse effects caused by endocrine disruptors (for instance effects on reproduction) have been the matter of assessment for many years. This, in practice, means that many substances where evidence as endocrine disruptors is available have been already banned in the EU. The new criteria will however allow for a more accurate and up to date assessment.
Will the new criteria be applied immediately?
As a general rule, and in order to ensure quick action and that recent scientific developments will be taken into account, the more accurate scientific criteria will be applied immediately. In addition, in order to allow the further scientific assessment work to start, the Commission will ask today the European Food Safety Authority (ESFA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to start already looking at individual substances - for which indications exist that they could be endocrine disruptors - to accelerate the process once the criteria are in force.
This ensures that these two regulatory Agencies are ready to apply those criteria, once these are adopted in accordance with the regulatory procedures.
What is the Commission presenting?
Two separate draft measures were endorsed by the College on the 15th of June, 2016: They specify the criteria to identify endocrine disruptors and more precisely how the identification of endocrine disruptors should be carried out:
- one delegated act containing criteria applicable to the chemical substances falling under the Biocidal Products Regulation; and
- a Commission Regulation containing criteria applicable to the chemical substances falling under the Plant Protection Products Regulation, and which will need to be adopted in accordance with the Regulatory procedure with scrutiny.
The draft measures are accompanied by a Communication on endocrine disruptors and the impact assessment report. The presentation of the criteria to identify endocrine-disrupting substances will fulfil the legal obligations under the plant protection products and. Once adopted, under the biocides legislation. Once adopted, the EU regulatory system will be the first regulatory system worldwide to define scientific criteria for endocrine disruptors in legislation confirming the Commission's commitment to ensuring the highest level of protection of both; human health and the environment
What are the next steps in terms of procedure?
Following the presentation of today's package, the Commission calls upon Member States and EU institutions involved in the further adoption process to work closely and constructively in order to swiftly adopt these texts.
In the context of the Biocidal Products regulation, the draft measure will be discussed with experts from Member States prior to adoption by the Commission.
Both measures involve the European Parliament and the Council. In order to ensure coherence between the two acts, the Commission will present both texts simultaneously to the European Parliament and the Council for them to exercise their scrutiny functions.
The two drafts will also be notified to the World Trade Organisation, to allow third countries to comment on them because the criteria will also apply to products imported into the EU.
For more information
 COM(1999)706 final, 17.12.1999.
 JRC Scientific and Policy Reports (2013), Key scientific issues relevant to the identification and characterisation of endocrine disrupting substances. Report of the Endocrine Disrupters Expert Advisory Group. Report EUR 25919 EN, http://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/JRC79981/lbna25919enn.pdf; JRC Scientific and Policy Reports (2013), Thresholds for Endocrine Disruptors and Related Uncertainties. Report of the Endocrine Disrupters Expert Advisory Group. Report EUR 26068 EN, http://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/JRC83204/lb-na-26-068-en-n.pdf .
 More information on the multitude of EU activities is available on the dedicated Commission web portal: http://ec.europa.eu/health/endocrine_disruptors/policy/index_en.htm.
 Council Directive 98/24/EC of 7 April 1998 on the protection of the health and safety of workers from the risks related to chemical agents at work (OJ L 131, 5.5.1998, p.11).
 Regulation (EU) No 528/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning the making available on the market and use of biocidal products (OJ L 167, 27.6.2012, p. 1).
 Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market (OJ L 309, 24.11.2009, p. 1).
 Generally, a risk-based approach allows more consideration of proportionality when taking regulatory (i.e. risk-management) decisions.
 The Commission is currently conducting a "fitness check", under the REFIT programme, to assess these aspects more in-depth (see http://ec.europa.eu/smart-regulation/roadmaps/docs/2015_grow_050_refit_chemicals_outside_reach_en.pdf ).