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Photograph: freeimages.com/Javier Ramos

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals - both natural and man-made - that impact on animal and human hormone systems. They are suspected to be linked to issue such as reproductive problems, breast cancer and developmental issues in children, according to the World Health Organization.

The commission, the European Union's executive, was supposed to propose new guidelines by 2013, but delayed its decision. The issue has been closely watched by health and environmental groups, as well as the agricultural and chemical industry.

"Endocrine disruptors can have serious health and environmental impacts," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement. "Even if many substances containing them are already banned ... we have to remain vigilant."

The commission proposed that substances should be classified as endocrine disruptors based on all relevant scientific evidence, and depending on how hazardous the chemical is, irrespective of the actual risk of exposure.

It also drafted comparable recommendations for endocrine disruptors found in biocides that destroy fungi or bacteria. These substances are used for more than just plant control, in products ranging from hand disinfectants to cleaning fluids and insect poison.

But the commission's proposed criteria were roundly criticized.

Organizations representing the pesticides, chemicals and plastics industries argued that the risk of exposure should be taken into account.

Failing to do so could "lead to bans of crop protection products with the same endocrine-disrupting properties found in everyday products like coffee," said Jean-Charles Bocquet, the director of the European Crop Protection Association.

"The dose makes the poison," added conservative EU lawmaker Jens Giseke, while farming association Copa & Cogeca argued that the new restrictions would put European farmers at risk without protecting consumers from imported products treated with endocrine disruptors.

But Green EU lawmaker Bas Eickhout said the proposed criteria were too narrow and allowed for broad exemptions, and accused the commission of putting "the bottom line of a few agro-chemical companies ahead of public health." 

The criteria set an "unrealistically high burden of proof to show these toxics harm people, which is almost impossible to meet," added Vito Buonsante, a lawyer for the ClientEarth environmental group.

The proposals - which only lay out how to identify endocrine disruptors, not how to regulate them - must now be considered by EU member states and the European Parliament, while countries importing products to the EU will also be consulted.

The commission asked the relevant EU regulators, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency, to examine what approved substances would contain endocrine disruptors under the new criteria, in preparation for when they enter into force.

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