Earth & Conservation

Chemical Pollution Is Soaring Faster Than We Can Measure It

Production of synthetic chemicals is far outpacing the ability of scientists to study their effects.

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How many new synthetic chemicals do you think are being produced on an annual basis? Whatever your guess, there's a pretty good chance it's a massive underestimate. Fully 10 million new compounds are being unleashed each year: That's more than 1,100 every hour, or 19 per minute. If you read at about the same speed as I do, eight new compounds will have been produced by the time it takes you to get to the end of this sentence.

According to a new analysis in the journal Frontiers of Ecology and Environment, the rate of increase in the production and diversification of pharmaceuticals and pesticides exceeds that of most previously recognized agents of global change, such as habitat destruction and even CO2 emissions. But, reports the analysis - by Emily Bernhardt of Duke University and colleagues - the amount of scientific attention being paid to them, and particularly their possible ecological impacts, is disproportionately low.

Bernhardt and her co-authors "found that within mainstream ecological journals, studies of contaminant effects on populations, species, communities, and ecosystem processes lag well behind research on other, well-recognized drivers of global environmental change, with less than 1 percent of all papers in the 20 most highly cited ecological journals over the past 25 years referencing any type of synthetic chemical." At the 2015 meeting of the Ecological Society of America, with 5,000 attendees - the largest-ever conference of international ecologists - "only 1.3 percent of the presentations (51 out of 3810 abstracts) included any of our contaminant search terms. In comparison, 13 percent of all presentations referenced "nitrogen" and 22 percent referred to 'climate change.'"

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As for why this should be: Well, for one thing, Bernhardt told Seeker, "It's really technically challenging work. A lot of questions are difficult to answer because most of the places where you really worry about chemical contamination have lots of different kinds of chemicals, and chemical identification and measurement is really hard."

Furthermore, added G. Allen Burton of the University of Michigan, in-field ecological research is generally the only real option: Not only are laboratory studies of chemical compounds generally expensive and time-consuming, but they may well not anticipate what will happen in the real world. "So often these chemicals behave drastically differently when released into the environment than in the lab," he said to Seeker. "They're affected by sunlight, by temperature, other chemicals, organic matter, all kinds of things alter their form and potential toxicity. We can't just rely on our lab tests and our genetic markers, we have to have ecologists out there too.

"Our waterways are filled with these chemicals - admittedly, often at very low concentrations, but a lot of these chemicals, especially pharmaceuticals and personal-care products, are active to organisms in the part-per-trillion range. Scientifically, to look at the interactions of these thousands of chemicals is just mind-boggling, it's overwhelming. But the answer is not to put our heads in the sand. It's not to ignore it. We have to be addressing this. We're morally obliged to, just as we are with climate change."

But meanwhile, much funding has dried up. Bernhardt and colleagues report that the major funding agency for ecologists in the United States is the National Science Foundation's Department of Environmental Biology; but less than three percent of all current research grants and total funding "included any of our search terms in the project title or abstract." Additionally, note Burton and colleagues in a separate study in Environmental Science & Technology, overall funding of scientific research from the Environmental Protection Agency is a fraction of what has been recommended by the National Academies of Science.

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It seems unlikely the next four years will see an increase in federal funding on environmental science of any kind, either. Bernhardt suggests that other approaches may be needed, particularly given the sheer number of chemicals being produced and the amount of human and financial resources that would be required to assess the ecological impact of them all.

"Compounds that are being produced in massive quantities, and which we know are going to wind up in the environment, like pesticides, we should be paying particularly close attention to," she said. "Are they really better than the alternative? Or are they replacing something that we know is worse? I think those are the kind of questions that we should be asking at the front end of chemical production. Not all chemicals are bad: Some new pesticides can be much more targeted or can be used in much smaller quantities. So it's not as if every new chemical is a bad thing, but I don't think we're spending enough time considering which new synthetic chemical is really an improvement. Do we really need odor-resistant socks, when they come with the cost of all these textiles that are now embedded with nanoparticles? Do we really need whiter ice cream with titanium dioxide in it?"

Burton and his co-authors hold up the example of Australia's Cooperative Research Centres program, in which academic, government and industry partners come together "to provide cutting edge, applied research that benefits all involved." And Bernhardt notes that publications on climate change showed a marked increase following the first IPCC Assessment Report, and wonders whether a similar international effort on synthetic chemicals would produce comparable results.

"Certainly, it's an international problem," she said. "These chemicals don't respect international boundaries, so seeing attention on this subject on both national and international levels is what I'd really like to see happen."

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