What better way to commemorate Earth Day than by learning about how our everyday actions affect the environment? This week’s Frontiers focused on common chemical pollutants and their impacts. IonE resident fellow and College of Science and Engineering professor Bill Arnold kicked off the talk, followed by Matt Simcik, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Ron Hadsall, professor in the College of Pharmacy. With conversations ranging from flaming couches to perspiration and peeing, here are 10 things we learned:
1. The good, the bad and the complex. Lately chemicals have been receiving a lot of flack for being toxic, but we must remember that we rely on chemicals for much of our life. Chemicals are a necessary and helpful part of life, but the properties that make them good for our industries, such as their stability and persistence, are often the same things that make them bad for the environment. Understanding how they interact in the environment is complex and can be influenced by features such as quantity, level of exposure and the specific setting.
2. PCB spells trouble. Polychlorinated biphenyls are manmade chemicals used for their stability, nonflammability, and high boiling point. PCBs were originally intended for industrial applications so it was assumed that they couldn’t easily be released into the environment. Then we discovered that PCBs are harmful to the environment and to humans, with health impacts including cancer and effects on the immune system. As persistent chemicals, PCBs do not easily break down once released into the environment, and they are able to travel far distances and accumulate in living things. PCBs were banned in1979, but they are still frequently found in the environment and in products produced before the ban.
3. The lesser of two evils? Sometimes referred to the “new PCBs,” polybrominated diphenyl ethers are used as flame retardants in many consumer products, including cars and furniture. Concerns over these chemicals include adverse neurobehavioral impacts on humans and ecotoxicity in many animals. Production of PBDEs started in the 1970s, peaked in the late 1990s, and began to be phased out beginning in 2009.
4. Think twice before washing your hands. If you’ve never been one to read product labels, now might be the time to start. The chemical triclosan can be found in many personal care products, including antibacterial hand soap and toothpaste, as an antibacterial agent. Production of triclosan started in the 1960s and increased rapidly, despite some studies saying that it does not provide any added antibacterial benefits. Furthermore, a University of Minnesota study showed triclosan is able to build up in the sediment of lakes, and it also forms dioxins when exposed to sunlight. The good news? Minnesota recently became the first state in the country to ban the chemical, effective January 1, 2017.
5. One of these things is not like the other. Research over the past few decades has made strides in understanding how chemicals act in the environment. Unlike PCBs and PBDEs, which travel easily, perfluorochemicals have a negative charge that binds them to things and keeps them relatively stationary. Yet, despite believing that PFCs shouldn’t go anywhere, researchers kept finding them all over the globe. Eventually, they discovered that the precursor chemicals were being distributed globally in the environment, which then transformed to form the PFCs.
6. Some 10–15 percent of all medications go unused. Pharmaceutical drugs are among the biggest sources of chemicals in the environment. While pharmacologists are trained to think about how medications affect human health, downstream consequences are sometimes unseen. When extra medication is thrown away or flushed down the toilet it enters the environment, through wastewater treatment plant effluents. These chemicals can then affect the organisms around them, as is evident from the recent reports of estrogen creating feminized fish. Researchers and policy makers have been looking into how to dispose of medication in a more responsible way. Regulations and take-back programs have started to make a difference.
7. Pass-through problems. The fact that 85–90 percent of pharmaceuticals are used does not mean these chemicals are staying out of the environment. Hadsall and colleague Lowell Anderson are exploring what happens to medications as they make their way out of our bodies and into wastewater. Conservatively, they estimate that 50 percent of what is consumed ends up in the sewage system and potentially the environment. This is significant, especially since millions of people around the world rely on various pharmaceutical drugs. Medical chemicals provide an added challenge because many people rely on pharmaceutical drugs, meaning reducing consumption or banning them may not be an option.
8. What now? Knowing what we now know about chemicals, Arnold, Simcik and Hadsall made recommendations about how we should move forward. We’ve already taken some steps by banning or phasing out known contaminants, but there are still concerns over how to best manage what’s already in the environment. Specifically, we need to invest more in thorough testing before using new chemicals. In addition, they recommend that the laws and regulations that govern these chemicals should be reevaluated and updated.
9. Education is important. In both medical and industrial products, the power of the consumer should not be undervalued. People tend to make different decisions if they know the consequences of their actions, so informing them about what’s included in products may affect their decision to buy or use these products. Consumers can also push back against suppliers and manufacturers, forcing them make changes accordingly. Because many of the laws and regulations governing chemicals have not been updated since they were written in the 1970s and 1980s, public education should also include information about regulations and whether they are outdated.
10. Could local solutions answer global problems? While Switzerland and Sweden have been leading the way in Europe by developing solutions to managing these chemicals, the United States have been less responsive. The panelists agreed that Minnesota might be a good place to start, thanks to its trifecta of environmentally informed citizens, corporations and legislature.
Photo by Bert van Dijk (Flickr/Creative Commons)