The What, Where, and How of Contaminants of Emerging Concern

During the past few decades we have come to realize that almost everything we put into the environment eventually closes the loop and comes back to us, sometimes in the form of unintended contamination. This realization has lead agencies at both the state and federal levels to ban some chemicals for certain uses, such as was the case with bisphenol-A (aka BPA) used in manufacturing baby bottles and sippy cups. On a broader scale, researches worldwide are looking closely at specific chemicals used in products that may pose long-term environmental and health and safety problems years after they are no longer in use.

These chemicals, called contaminants of emerging concern (CECs), are used in a wide variety of products from human and animal pharmaceuticals to fire retardants to  nonstick cookware. According to the EPA, “An emerging contaminant (EC) is a chemical or material characterized by a perceived, potential, or real threat to human health or the environment or by a lack of published health standards. A contaminant also may be “emerging” because of the discovery of a new source or a new pathway to humans.”

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The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) offers a more descriptive definition, which serves to underline the variety and variability of CECs. "’Emerging contaminants’ can be broadly defined as any synthetic or naturally occurring chemical or any microorganism that is not commonly monitored in the environment but has the potential to enter the environment and cause known or suspected adverse ecological and (or) human health effects. In some cases, release of emerging chemical or microbial contaminants to the environment has likely occurred for a long time, but may not have been recognized until new detection methods were developed. In other cases, synthesis of new chemicals or changes in use and disposal of existing chemicals can create new sources of emerging contaminants.”

Ironically, many of the original products made with CECs were heralded by consumers as the latest and greatest innovation, only to find out later that components of the products posed contamination questions. Other CECs have been a part of our daily lives for so long we may not even be aware that things would be different without them. For example according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), triclosan is a chemical commonly used in soap, deodorant, toothpaste, and mouthwash as an antibacterial agent and can also be found in toys, clothing, and other products. Recently, triclosan testing in animals revealed it may also be an endocrine disrupter, meaning it can alter regulation of hormones in animals. Although the FDA notes that animal findings do not necessarily correlate to the same in humans, triclosan remains a CEC while research continues.

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While intentional ingestion is one way we can be affected by CECs, the big problem they present is their considerable availability in the natural environment, most importantly in both surface and ground- water. How did they get there? Several ways.

If it is flushed, washed off, or otherwise sent down the drain, a CEC may ultimately end up in a water body via either a septic system or a wastewater treatment facility. Obviously, this goes for all types of health and beauty products, cleaning products, and pharmaceuticals that are either dumped or may not be completely metabolized and thus leave the body via urine.

CECs contained in products sent to landfills are also problematic as they eventually degrade and leach chemicals into the environment. Although newer landfills are constructed to prevent/contain leaching, older landfills were not. These often-closed sites may have leachate plumes under them that can impact drinking water wells or aquifers. Other CECs contained in products such as herbicides and pesticides enter the water system as runoff during storm events. There are many CECs and many pathways for them to travel, and tomorrow we will look at ongoing research regarding three common CECs.

1 thought on “The What, Where, and How of Contaminants of Emerging Concern”

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