The contamination of the world’s freshwater systems with previously unknown pollutants is a recognised issue that is posing a threat to human health and the environment. Until now, the impact and awareness of freshwater pollution has been mainly concentrated on ‘priority’ listed pollutants, with an emphasis placed on the regulation and monitoring of agricultural and industrial chemicals.

However, concerns have now been raised about the risks associated with unregulated chemicals within the environment, including the bioactive ingredients of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs). The full impacts of EDCs are not fully understood and it is a complex and highly disputed issue, with only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals in existence being assessed for endocrine disrupting activity.

EDCs are generally man-made, and can be found in various materials including everyday products such as cosmetics, plastic bottles, metal food cans, pesticides and flame retardants. Typical chemicals that display characteristics of EDCs that you may have heard of include Bisphenol A (BPA) in water bottles, Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in flame retardants, Parabens in cosmetics, Phthalates in food containers and synthetic hormones found in the contraceptive pill. A recent study carried out in France in 2015 found traces of at least 21 EDC’s in each woman that was tested, including chemicals that have been banned, highlighting that the problem may be greater than many people realise.

EDCs have the potential to disrupt the sensitive hormone pathway of the endocrine system, a collection of glands that secrete hormones or chemical regulators into the body to produce characteristic actions in order to regulate metabolic processes. Disturbing the hormone pathway within the endocrine system can lead to physiological effects at even low concentrations in humans, animals and aquatic life. The impacts of these effects in aquatic life are shockingly evident at even extremely low doses, with effects including reproductive disorders in UK freshwater fish, and immune, thyroid disorders, diabetes and neurological problems in humans.

Due to lack of data being published on the occurrence, environment fate and toxicity of EDCs within the environment, many chemicals of particular concern are not yet regulated and therefore are not included in priority pollutant legislation or within standard water sampling requirements. However, recently an emphasis has been placed on the dangers of more common forms of EDCs in personal care products. This includes many popular brands choosing to remove parabens, phthalates and Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) from their products.

Is this simply a reaction to the increased demand of these chemical-free products? Or are companies becoming more conscious of their effects on the environment and their consumers? Although the scientific evidence of the impact of EDCs is continually increasing, legislation and regulation of these chemicals have not been matched. Due to the economic importance of a number of these chemicals, particularly in the agricultural industry, the criteria needed to enforce regulation is often not science-based, or requires too high a burden of proof.

It has been estimated that the exposure to EDCs in Europe alone has cost over €163bn. In order to efficiently reduce the exposure of these chemicals, pressure must be placed on both the member states to implement a European action plan and the continuous supported improvement of scientific knowledge and understanding.

 

Lizzie Murray-Clark

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