Understanding CECs in the Environment

Since the industrial revolution, chemicals have been a part of manufacturing products not only as intrinsic ingredients but to add properties such as flame retardants, waterproofing, and even sunscreens. While these substances serve their intended purposes well, once they are disposed of they may also contribute contaminants as they degrade into the environment. 

Many of these chemicals, now known as contaminants of emerging concern (CECs), are showing up in the least desirable place, water, and have become the subject of research on a global scale to determine exactly how much damage they can do and may already have done.

In September 2013, the EPA released fact sheets about environmental studies (focusing on fish) on three classes of CECs:

  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers(PBDEs);
  • Perflourinated compounds (PFCs); and
  • Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs).

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PBDEs are commonly used as flame retardants in foam, textiles, and electronics manufacturing and have been in wide use since the 1970s. Although they were first found in the environment as early as the 1980s, more recent research indicates they are distributed worldwide actively through water and passively through the air. Monitoring for PBDEs has also found them to exist in soils, sediments, animals, and humans.

But PBDEs don’t just exist in the environment, they biomagnify, which means the concentration of PBDEs in tissue increases as it proceeds up the food chain from small organisms to larger ones, including humans. Since PBDEs are associated with endocrine disruption and neurodevelopmental toxicity in children and the unborn, three formulations of PBDEs are now in the process of being phased out. This voluntary industry process ran from 2004 to 2012 with the toxic penta- and octa-BDE compounds first followed by the phaseout of deca-BDE formulations.

The second class of CECs, PFCs, is the synthetic compound that offers manufacturing the benefits of repelling oil and water and providing thermal stability for both industrial and consumer goods. PFCs have been produced in large volumes since the 1950s and are now widely dispersed in the environment globally and are primarily transported in water. The compounds are known to be persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic in the environment and may be responsible for human health problems, including immunotoxicity, decreased sperm count, low birth weight, and thyroid disease, as well as endocrine (hormone) disruption and cancer in animals.

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In 2006, the EPA began the phaseout of PFCs that will end in 2015. Meanwhile, recent studies have shown that about  90 percent of human exposure to the two widest used PFCs is from food and that most people living in industrialized nations have detectable levels of PFCs in their blood.

The third group of CECs, PPCPs, is perhaps the one consumers know the best as it is comprised of all drugs (both over the counter and prescription), fragrances (such as in lotions and soaps), and ultraviolet filters in sunscreens.  This group is also the least studied, although beginning in the mid-2000s, PPCPs were increasingly found in surface waters and sediments.

Although the EPA notes that environmentally, PPCPs generally occur in low concentrations, their long-term impacts, such as whether  they bioaccumulate, are not clearly known. Suspected human problems, however, include development of resistance to antibiotics and endocrine system disruption.  In one recent EPA study of PPCPs in fish, the most prevalent PPCPs found were two antidepressants, a common antihistamine and two fragrance chemicals.

While research continues, the retail market is taking the lead in seeing that consumers get safer products without waiting for regulations. In October 2013, national retailer Target implemented its Sustainable Product Standard, grading 7,500 of its consumer household, personal care, and baby care products on a 100-point scale based on “the sustainability of ingredients, ingredient transparency, and overall environmental impact.” Consumers can use the new ratings to make the product choices that best serve their own health and sustainability needs.

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