INSIGHT: EEA fixes attention on emerging pollutants and mixtures

15 July 2011 16:01  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

Lake Constance in BavariaLONDON (ICIS)--Scientists and politicians are becoming more aware of the potential impact of the growing number of chemicals in our lakes, rivers and seas.

And a just-released report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) shows the progress is being made in assessing how some substances can act together to cause further harm to aquatic ecosystems.

There is a great deal that we simply do not know, and the EEA suggests that further work is needed to monitor the widening range of chemicals being released into the environment from a variety of sources.

The EU has a suite of legislation designed to protect the environment – including the Reach regulation, which is being used to register, evaluate and authorise for sale all chemicals on the EU market.

A deadline for the initial registration of the large number of substances sold in Europe in volumes of more than one tonne (the so-called lower tonnage volume substances) is set for 2018. Tighter control of some of these materials is possible even before then.

But the EEA is highlighting the fact that potential risks posed by “emerging pollutants” are not sufficiently understood.

“These emerging pollutants include substances that have existed for some time, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products, but also relatively new substances such as nanomaterials,” it says.

“Their inclusion in routine monitoring programmes has so far been limited, making it difficult to robustly assess the risks to the environment and human health – and thus to justify regulation and better monitoring.”

The EEA, however, believes monitoring some of these substances is desirable, if the aim is to raise our awareness of potentially problematic substances.

This group of emerging potential pollutants includes pharmaceuticals and veterinary products, as well as personal care products such as cosmetics, fragrances, soaps, shampoos, lotions and sunscreens.

Some toxicological studies on these chemicals indicate a potential concern, the agency says.

The UV (ultraviolet) filters used in sunscreens and cosmetics are one example. They have been shown to have oestrogenic effects in fish, either on their own or in mixtures.

Also, as far as sunscreens are concerned, research has shown that titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles can enhance the absorption of toxic cadmium in fish.

There is not a great deal of information available on the impact of nanoparticles on aquatic flora and fauna, but laboratory research has demonstrated an effect on water fleas and molluscs.

The absorption of toxic and persistent polyaromatic hydrocarbons to carbon nanotubes “aggregates increased toxicity to algae and daphnids [water fleas],” the EEA adds.

“Such interactions must, therefore, be accounted for in risk assessments, and are a parallel to the issue of chemical mixtures,” it says.

As our understanding advances, so does our potential for envisaging problems associated with more complex systems.

Work is being done to try to better understand the effect of mixtures of pollutants in freshwater and marine environments, and there are indications of some additive properties.

“One pattern, however, seems to be common amongst the vast majority of ecotoxicological mixture studies [in the marine environment]: the joint mixture toxicity is clearly higher than the toxic effect of each individual compound at the concentration present in the mixture,” the EEA says.

The implication is that compliance with an environmental quality standard for one substance may not necessarily act as a safeguard against mixture effects.

The EEA would clearly like to see the wider adoption of ‘green chemistry’, but it laments that “currently, however, there is no comprehensive EU legislation on sustainable chemistry in place”.

“Despite the comprehensive suite of legislation now implemented throughout Europe, the ubiquitous use of chemicals in society and their continuous release represents a major challenge, in terms of the protection of aquatic ecosystems and human health,” it says.

“Efforts to promote a sustainable consumption and production of chemicals are needed. They are likely to require a mix of policy responses, including regulation, economic incentives and information-based instruments.”

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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