• What Are the Main Types of Contaminants of Emerging Concern?


What Are the Main Types of Contaminants of Emerging Concern?

Jul 13 2022

Did you know that there are over 86,000 chemicals in circulation in the environment, according to an incomplete list compiled by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)? As per the records of that same agency, more than 1,000 of those chemicals are contaminants of emerging concern, though the real figure is likely to be at least 10 times higher due to the lack of regulation in the States on the subject.

With so many contaminants infiltrating our natural ecosystems on a daily basis, it’s a nigh-on impossible job to quantify all of them – and one which this article will not even attempt to achieve. Instead, here’s a quick rundown of the main groups of contaminants of emerging concern and their potential effects on human and environmental health over a prolonged period of time.

Pharmaceuticals and personal care products

In 2020, the British population spent a cumulative £12 billion on pharmaceuticals, including everything from pain relief to hormone regulators. The personal care industry is even more lucrative, with 2020 spending reaching almost £30 billion. Although some of the chemicals contained within these products are absorbed by the body (thus serving their primary function), a sizable proportion of them pass unscathed through the digestive system and are excreted into the toilet bowl, or else washed off our bodies and down the plughole.

After passing through the sewerage system, they can also survive wastewater treatment plants and infiltrate the natural environment once more. Depending on the drug in question, they can then interfere with the biological processes of both flora and fauna. This can lead to disrupted breeding patterns and even effect changes to the reproductive organs and processes of animals’ bodies.

Agricultural additives and cyanotoxins

Agricultural products such as fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides have become commonplace and even crucial in cultivating enough produce to feed the world’s growing population. However, after extreme weather events, an abundance of rainfall can wash the chemicals contained within these products into rivers, streams and lakes, causing an imbalance in the levels of ammonia, nitrogen and phosphate in aquatic ecosystems.

This can lead to the proliferation of cyanotoxins, which are produced by cyanobacteria in such conditions. Algal growths are a common symptom of this phenomenon, with the flora consuming more than their share of oxygen and blocking out the rays of the sun. This prevents the organisms beneath from accessing these precious resources. As such, these contaminants can accelerate the growth of certain plants and animals to the detriment of others.

Industrial chemicals and heavy metals

There is a veritable cocktail of chemicals that are consumed and emitted by various industries in a wide range of sectors. Hydrocarbons can often leach into aquatic environments through spillages or leaks, while common industrial substances such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanoic sulphate (PFOS) and 1.4 dioxanes are regularly discovered in water sources.

Elsewhere, heavy metals such as copper, iron, lead and zinc can degrade soil quality and impact negatively upon aquatic environments. As well as potentially harming the native plants and animals, these metals can also jeopardise human health, as has been witnessed in a number of high-profile court cases where metals leaching into drinking water supplies caused sickness and even death among US communities.

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Asian Environmental Technology 26.3 - September 2022

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