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Letters to the UK press in July 1995

The Guardian 27/7/95:

Dear Sir,

John Vidal (Unpopular science, July 26) makes many salient points in his examination of the Government's decision take no action over chemicals that are suspected to be imitating hormones. One discrepancy he does not mention is the difference between the processes of getting a new chemical approved, and getting an existing chemical banned. For approval of a new chemical a company must undertake animal, and sometimes cell culture, toxicity tests to establish the safety of the chemical. The Government considers the results of these tests to be a reasonable indicator of human toxicity. In the case of the oestrogenic chemicals already in use, there is a great deal of animal and cell culture data showing their hormonal effects, some of it dating back to the 1930's. This data is not considered to be a reliable indicator of human toxicity - one law for industry and another for the rest of us.

The Government has already committed itself to the precautionary principal; its 1990 White Paper on Sustainable development said:

"Where there are significant risks of damage to the environment the Government will be prepared to take precautionary action to limit the use of potentially dangerous materials or the spread of potentially dangerous pollutants, even where scientific knowledge is not conclusive, if the likely balance of costs and benefits justifies it."

Yet now they require proof "beyond doubt", or to state it another way, overwhelming evidence of human damage. Further research is necessary - but there is already sufficient known to push for action now - not in 5 or 10 years time, when another generation will have been exposed to these chemicals in their mother's womb. The attitude of the Government and the Chemical Industry to oestrogen toxicity is totally immoral, and pressure must be put on them to act now on this threat to both people and the environment.

Yours ,

Dr Michael Warhurst

The Independent 31/7/95:

Dear Sir,

The Government's call for more research but no action in response to this weeks report on the health implications of oestrogenic chemicals is complacent and short term. Some of these chemicals have been known to be oestrogenic since 1938 and many, such as the alkylphenolic compounds, have already been banned in other countries, whilst some companies in the UK have stopped using plastics containing phthalates. The quote attributed to Professor Lewis , the Director of the Institute for Environment and Health, that banning in the absence of definitive evidence was a mistake because "if you've guessed badly you have left behind the chemicals doing the damage", makes little sense when the Government's decision is to ban nothing - so leaving all the oestrogenic chemicals in the environment - a bigger mistake than possibly leaving a few.

The persistent complaint from the chemical industry whenever one of their products is shown to be dangerous, e.g. CFCs, DDT etc., is that "there is no alternative", but within a few years alternatives are in place [(though not usually produced by UK industry, because they've spent their energies lobbying the Government not to ban the chemical in question)].

Animal and cell culture toxicity tests are what companies use to persuade the Government that a new chemical is safe, but now the Government ignores evidence from these same tests that existing chemicals are dangerous. The Government wants proof of human damage by the oestrogenic compounds - but there are only two ways this can be obtained:

i) Small scale human experiments, where pregnant women are fed controlled amounts of the chemical(s) in question, and their children are then studied for damage over the next 20 years or so, a totally unethical experiment.

ii) Large scale human experiments, where the population is exposed to the suspect chemical(s), and epidemiological methods are used to evaluate any damaging effects on the population.

This week's events demonstrate that the Government intends to continue experiment (ii), which has already been going for 50 years. They are totally ignoring their own commitment to the precautionary principle, and endangering the health of the population and the environment. [Our health is more important than the financial interests of the chemical industry. The time for action is now - not in five, ten or twenty years time. Many of these chemicals could be banned now or phased out over the next few years with no real effect on industry].

Yours ,

Dr Michael Warhurst

NB: The statements in [ ] were edited out by the Independent.

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