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Report on WECF lunch event at European Parliament on developmental harm of children

Europe's children’s brains and reproductive organs are at risk from hazardous chemicals if European Parliament does not improve proposed legislation on pesticides, toys, cosmetics and chemicals

09.10.2008 |Chantal van den Bossche

Europeans children’s brains and reproductive organs at risk from hazardous chemicals if European Parliament does not improve proposed legislation on pesticides, toys, cosmetics and chemicals. Report on the lunch event on developmental harm of children caused by low-dose exposure to hazardous chemicals in daily life at the European Parliament, 7 October 2008 

Sascha Gabizon , executive director of WECF, stated that "industry’s arguments were difficult to believe, seen the fact that alternatives exist and that even the Food and Agriculture Organisation has stated that organic farming, without pesticides, can feed the world just as well as conventional farming with pesticides".

Professor Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of Environmental Health at Harvard University and expert on children’s environmental health, said, at an event organised by WECF Women in Europe for a Common Future - at the European Parliament, "Children should not be ingesting food containing neurotoxic pesticides. Many pesticides are made specifically to destroy insects' nervous systems. Unfortunately, humans have a biochemistry very similar to insects. This makes human brain development sensitive to the pesticides, and the consequences are serious in this age of technology, where we - and future generations - must rely on optimal brain functions. When something goes wrong in the child’s brain development, it is damaged forever, you do not get a second chance to build a brain".

Professor Niels Skakkebaek, specialized in environmental aspects of male reproductive disorders, at the University Hospital, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen, Denmark, added "not only the brain is important, testes are also important, and with 400% increases in testicular cancer, as we see in my country, politicians should be very worried, as the basis for testicular cancer is laid when the baby boy is in the mothers womb; this increase can only be explained by environmental causes".

WECF organised an expert meeting yesterday at the European Parliament, to highlight latest science on the connection between children’s health problems and chemicals found in children’s food and products, as European parliamentarians are preparing to vote on a revision of the Pesticide Directive, the Cosmetics Directive and the Toys Safety Directive.

Dorette Corbey, Member of European Parliament and member of the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food safety, hosted the meeting. She welcomed all participants and thanked the WECF for organising the event. She welcomed in particular her colleagues Frieda Brepoels (EPP-ED) and Hiltrud Breyer (Greens/EFA).

Professor Grandjean said that it is also a question of ethics; "If I asked my Medical Ethics Committee, and requested to experiment with neurotoxic pesticides on pregnant women and children, they would of course refuse. They would not allow a risk to affect the brain development of the child. How come that politicians accept such an experiment on all the population? We should not risk the brains of our children".

Dorette Corbey reiterated that the danger of chemicals in products we use on a daily basis is a difficult message to bring across. It involves habits of consumers. 'Politically, this is a very difficult message. How do you tell parents that the toys their children are playing with may potentially damage their health? Or women about the danger of their body lotion they put on every day?' She also asked the European Commission to include testing of neurotoxins into the chemicals legislation and for appropriate testing methods to be developed. As for pesticides, she argued that the voice of the agro-industry should be heardtoo, as it is linked to the security of our food. The use of pesticides should, however, be constraint to clear rules, which are currently being laid out in European legislation at the moment. Neurotoxicity should be part of this too.

Professor Grandjean confirmed that "what we see is a world-wide pandemic, the child population in the world is affected by over 200 neurotoxins in their direct environment, many of them being pesticides. Perhaps as many as one out of six childrens brain development have been adversely affected, in part by neurotoxins, as a scientific report in the Lancet already showed in November 2006. Testing for neurotoxins is a necessity, in pesticides as well as in other consumer products".

Bjorn Hansen of the European Commission indicated that the current chemicals legislation does not request testing on neurotoxins, as the testing methods were not yet well developed. Professor Grandjean countered that this is no longer the situation, as the OECD has developed a test protocol for neurotoxicity during development, and that "there exists new cell-based laboratory tests, which no longer require live animals to be used, and which are also less expensive".

Sascha Gabizon, executive director of WECF added that "for parents it is unacceptable to have to wait many years until the European Commission has agreed to require neurotoxicity testing, whereas all children born today are at risk of having retarded brain development or later in life cancers, from contaminants their mothers are not even aware of they are being exposed to and passing on to the child in their womb. We want that European Parliamentarians take their responsibility and protect our children now, by making sure neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors are not allowed to be in children’s food, toys and body-care products".

Professor Skakkebaek confirmed that "when women are pregnant, and they put on body lotions and facial cremes in the morning, which often contain phthalates, these phthalates will go straight into her bloodstream, with peak levels at lunch time, and remain in the blood till they apply a next layer the next day. In this way, pregnant women unintentionally continuously expose their unborn babies to a chemical, which in animal experiments damage testicular development".

Sascha Gabizon showed a doll which she had bought for her daughter, and which according to a test carried out by the German testing organisation Ökotest contained a phthalate called Diisononylcyclohexan-1,2-dicarboxylat, which according to its chemical structure, resembles other hormone disrupting chemicals; "if I understand the professors well, just by touching this doll, phthalates can enter my skin and go into the bloodstream, and can cause a deformation of the penis if I were pregnant of a boy?".

Prof. Skakkebaek agreed that by touching a toy with phthalates, some of these phthalates can enter into the mother's bloodstream through the skin. He explained that "we can not prove the direct link from one specific chemical to testicular cancer, but we do have a lot of evidence, for example, there is an association between higher levels of phthalates in the mothers breast milk and lower levels of testosterone in her baby boy. We also see an association between higher levels of brominated flame retardants in the breast milk, and undecended testicules when the baby is born. The same association we see with pesticides".

In regard to banning chemicals, Professor Grandjean recommended the European Parliamentarians to add the E of Endocrine Disrupting, and the N of Neurotoxic to the CMR of Carcinogenic, Mutagenic and Reprotoxic, CMREN; they should all be substituted - "especially in a product like cosmetics, there should be no need for any neurotoxins; cosmetics are supposed to make you pretty, not stupid".

Sascha Gabizon, WECF, referred to amendment proposed by French MEP Jacques Toubon, who wants to allow high levels of the heavy metal mercury in toys, of up to 2 mg per kilogram of weight of a child per day, asked professor Grandjean, what he, as a mercury experts, thought of this.

Prof Grandjean responded, "it is completely incomprehensible how any government would allow such high levels of mercury in childrens toys, knowing what we know about the health effect of mercury, many countries, working together with the United Nations, are trying to get a total ban of mercury use worldwide".

Sascha Gabizon, WECF, comments that, "as a mother, she has seen a great number of pieces broken of toys, and that we can not expect of children that they will use toys according to the handbook, we should apply the precautionary principle and not allow any carcinogenic or other known dangerous chemicals in toys".

"For mercury and lead the effects on brain damage and other health effects are proven, with almost 60 years of research behind us", said professor Grandjean. "We know that manganese has similar health effects as lead, – a French study has shown a link between manganese in cord-blood of new born babies and delayed brain development – , which is why it seems unbelievable that some European Parliamentarians from the new EU member states want to add manganese to petrol".

Dorette Corbey, Member of the European Parliament, thanked the participants, and the professors in particular, for having called on the MEPs to take responsible decisions to better protect Europe’s children.

The full report

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