• Why Are Micropollutants Harmful?

Water/Wastewater

Why Are Micropollutants Harmful?

Jun 19 2022

Over the last decade or so, there has been increased media attention and regulatory scrutiny on the issue of micropollutants. A by-product of a wide range of household and industrial products and processes, these substances are leached into our environment in low concentrations at first.

Nonetheless, they are considered to be potentially harmful to the natural environment due to their resistance to the natural process of degradation and their ability to bioaccumulate. While certain studies have linked their presence to undesirable environmental outcomes, much remains unknown about them. As such, further research is imperative if we are to fully understand and control these ubiquitous contaminants in our water sources. Here are a handful of reasons why they could be disastrous for the natural world in the future.

Persistence

Perhaps the most dangerous characteristic of many micropollutants is the difficulty of removing them from our environment once they have infiltrated it. For example, even modern wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) do not employ sufficient processes to eliminate all traces of harmful substances from their effluent streams. This means that micropollutants are leached directly back into the soil and water.

Bioaccumulation

Many of the substances regarded as micropollutants have significant half-lives, while others do not biodegrade in the environment at all. This means that although they may initially enter the natural world in small concentrations, they can bioaccumulate over time. Eventually, they will reach levels that disrupt the delicate balance of the ecosystem surrounding them.

Natural disruption

As mentioned above, high levels of certain micropollutants can cause undesirable impacts on the environments they inhabit. For example, scientific research has proven that certain chemicals and hormones present in many cosmetics and personal care products (PPCPs) can unbalance the hormonal, nervous and reproductive systems of marine and freshwater organisms, even changing the sex of the animal on occasion.

Lack of knowledge

Many of the aforementioned substances are known as emerging micropollutants (EMPs), meaning they have only recently been discovered as posing a threat to the health of natural ecosystems (relatively speaking). Although research into their effects is ongoing and has uncovered some of the unwanted outcomes outlined above, there may be more negative impacts of their growing presence in the environment of which we are not yet aware.

Lack of regulation

Finally, due to the fact that EMPs are only just now coming to the forefront of scientific and political consciousness, there is a real dearth of legislation in place to deal with them or regulate how they are processed and emitted in the environment. As research progresses and our knowledge expands, we will be in a better place to institute laws aimed to curbing their harmful impacts – but for the present time, we’re in something of a grey area where not a huge amount of restrictions are in place.


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International Environmental Technology 32.3 - May/June 2022

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