Synthetic chemicals are agents of change, danger: Study

Washington: The steady rise in the manufacture and release of synthetic chemicals are showing drastic changes in our environment. But why they are still ignored by global change assessments?

A study suggests that research on the ecological effects of pharmaceuticals, pesticides and industrial chemicals is severely lacking.

“To date, global change assessments have ignored synthetic chemical pollution. Yet these chemicals are increasing at a rate that is on par, or more rapid, than other agents of global change, such as CO2 emissions or nutrient pollution,” said Emma J. Rosi, a freshwater ecologist at the Cary Institute and a co-author on the paper.

The team studied and assessed the global trends in synthetic chemical pollution since 1970s and then compared the results with the other drivers of the global change. Less than one percent of the journal articles, 1.3 percent of the presentations and 0.01 percent of the NSF grants explored the environmental effects or fate of these chemicals.

Emily S. Bernheardt, professor of biogeochemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said research on the ecological impacts of synthetic chemical pollution has been static since the 1970s.

“But our portfolio of these manufactured chemicals keeps growing – with more than 80,000 now in use commercially. This knowledge gap is becoming a chasm, with real consequences for ecological health,” said Bernheardt.

Synthetic chemicals meet the criteria set out by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment to define agents of global change. That is why they are globally distributed. They increase in relation to human population and economic growth, and they have known impacts on organisms.

Pesticides, pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals can leave a long effect on the toxic legacies that go through the ecosystems.

“Identifying the environmental threat of synthetic chemicals as a whole relies on new concepts and greatly intensified research. At present there is grossly insufficient information to assess the environmental impact of the wide variety of synthetic chemicals in use today, particularly when it comes to effects at a large scale and in the long run,” said Co-author Mark O. Gessner of Germany’s Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB).

The study’s results reveal that the National Science Foundation, the primary funding agency for U.S. ecological research, is not supporting ecological research on synthetic chemicals. The other U.S. Government agencies and some other private organizations, which funded the field results, now have their budgets cut drastically.

The recommendations given in the research papers are accelerating synthetic chemical impact research by mobilizing increased funding, fostering collaboration among ecologists and eco-toxicologists to better predict and reduce environmental harm by synthetic chemicals, and launching an internationally-coordinated effort to assess how synthetic chemical pollution impacts the goals and targets of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Rosi concluded saying, “In the 1960s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sounded the alarm on the environmental dangers of synthetic chemicals. The problem hasn’t gone away, it’s only intensified, and we need to reawaken awareness. Synthetic chemicals are leading agents of global change and it’s essential that we invest in the research needed to understand and minimize their impacts.” (ANI)