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COVID-19: The view from CHEM Trust

By Elizabeth Salter Green, CHEM Trust, 8th June 2020

EFN invited a range of organisations with different funding models to tell us about the impact of the pandemic on their work. For some, the impact on their ability to achieve their mission and their fundraising are profound, for others, less so, but either way, the blogs are proving a fascinating insight into the range of critical environmental work going on during the pandemic.

The pandemic has not changed the rationale for CHEM Trust’s work: the global threat of chemicals, particularly hormone disrupting chemicals, has not gone away and they remain an invisible, insidious threat to human health, wildlife and the environment.

Every day we use hormone disrupting chemicals in food and consumer products in the form of pesticides and industrial chemicals. They are a cause for grave concern because the hormone system controls fertility, reproduction and behaviour and is closely linked to the immune and nervous systems; hormones orchestrate neurological development. The endocrine system is a network of glands that makes the hormone chemical messengers that enable cells talk to each other. Hormones work at very low levels, so even very low levels of hormone disruptors can have catastrophic effects on population viability. Sadly, we have seen this widely exhibited in the wildlife world, including panthers in Florida exposed to pesticides used in orange cultivation, which have penises so small they are incapable of reproduction; orcas living in UK waters so highly contaminated with PCBs (very persistent, toxic hormone disrupting chemicals) that no calf has been born for over 25 years, and many, many other examples in reptiles, birds and other mammals.

In humans, hormone disruptors are associated with fertility issues and reproductive problems (most notably reductions in sperm count), diabetes and obesity, and some hormonally-driven cancers including those of the breast and the testis; they can impact children’s brain development, too, which is associated with decreased IQ, ADHD and autism.

Hormone disrupting chemicals can also undermine the immune system, so the COVID-19 pandemic has really emphasised the need for our work. Though we have not all been tested, the accepted science acknowledges that the vast majority of us have hormone disrupting chemicals in our bodies. We are exposed to them via our food, the air we breathe, our drinking water, and the products we allow into our homes and lives. Plastics, personal care products, drugs, pesticides, flame retardants, air pollution, household products, food additives, non-stick cookware, and many other products contain hormone disrupting chemicals.

Typically, the earlier in life that hormone disruption occurs, the more severe and permanent the damage, leading to diseases like diabetes, heart disease and reproductive cancers.

Human epidemiological studies and experiments in laboratory animals establish without question that such exposures can increase susceptibility to these diseases and many more. Exposures can also cause immunosuppression, which increases vulnerability to infections.

CHEM Trust focusses at the EU level, as the EU has the best, though far from perfect, chemicals legislation in the world. Our role is constantly to call for improvements, particularly relating to hormone disrupting chemicals. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the EU had announced a very promising ‘European Green Deal’ (EGD) which includes stronger action on chemicals. In May, in a follow-up to the EGD, the Commission launched a public consultation on the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability and also published the Farm To Fork Strategy, including a significant focus on hazardous chemicals in food packaging. Hence the political message coming from the EU is that chemicals remain a priority during the pandemic, though of course there is increased pressure from industry and some politicians for delays (nothing new there!) to help the chemical sector recover. So, CHEM Trust continues with online policy meetings, webinars and virtual conferences. Additionally, we are a highly skilled and technical organisation but also small, so rely on networks with other NGOs with different strengths playing different roles. We have formed a taskforce to exchange daily developments and updates. These networks have never been more important than now.

There is no doubt that strong EU chemicals policy, with its vital strategic global influence, is part of the current pandemic solution and needs to be prioritised. We cannot continue to release chemicals into the environment, our food chain and ourselves that undermine our own immune response to disease. Humans are part of the global web of life and biodiversity itself.  We know chemicals are impacting other species at the population level; we are unrealistic if we think, somehow, that humans are different and immune to the health impacts of chemicals that we see in wildlife. We have the same physiological processes, reliant on hormones, that have been preserved in evolutionary time. The EU is taking a global lead on chemicals management, particularly relating to hormone disruptors. The rest of the world, including the other big chemical manufacturing blocs, are watching, knowing that they will have to come up to similar standards, otherwise they will not be able to export their products into the EU market.

Of course, now that the UK is leaving the EU, we are putting significant efforts towards new UK chemicals policy, but our message is simple – the EU chemicals policy is the best in the world, so stay closely aligned to it; we do not want the UK to become a dumping ground for products that do not come up to EU standards.

CHEM Trust is a classic modern online organisation; we have 11 people working remotely in four countries, so our daily modus operandi, though impacted by social distancing, is not totally disrupted. Many of us are used to working from home and for those who regularly used our shared office space in London, which is no longer an option, we have put extra support in place.

From a funding perspective, CHEM Trust is small and relatively young and that makes us more vulnerable and less resilient than larger more established organisations. However, our funding is derived almost exclusively from trusts and foundations and we have developed warm and longstanding relationships with them. They are a rare, wonderful group of funders, who have got to know our work well and understand that their long-term funding is critical to helping us achieve our goal of greater protection from harmful hormone disrupting chemicals. Our work is definitely a Cinderella issue [a term from EFN research for environmental issues that are important but particularly poorly funded], so we really prize our donors and are thankful that they support the unpopular yet most pressing cause of chemicals. Our funders have made the connection between chemicals and the undermining of environmental and human health. Since the crisis we have been able to retain our funding and also to secure two new funders, which we see as very positive news.

So, the message I would like to give to funders who do support our work is ‘thank you’. You know that progress in the area of chemicals legislation can be slow and painstaking. Your measured risks of backing CHEM Trust are paying off. Over the last 5 years, working with key NGO partners, we have secured the ban of bisphenol A, a known hormone disruptor, from till receipts, and we have highlighted how woefully inadequate the EU food packaging legislation is, allowing hazardous chemicals to wrap our food, and secured a review which will tighten the regulations. The pandemic has not slowed our work down, but has shown it’s more important than ever before.

Elizabeth Salter Green is Director of CHEM Trust.

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