The case for stricter regulations on non-point source pollution keeps getting stronger. A report prepared for the International Joint Commission was recently released, helping to turn the threat of emerging contaminants in the Great Lakes into genuine concern for the future of our water resources. These types of pollutants are termed “emerging” because scientists are only beginning to understand how the chemicals make their way into drinking water sources, and what kind of risk they pose to human health or the environment.
Loosely classified into the following groups, emerging contaminants often have widespread use, although the long-term effects of the compounds are poorly understood.
- Pharmaceutical compounds: both prescription and non-prescription drugs, steroids, or hormones.
- Personal care products: a wide variety of compounds we might use every day, like cosmetics, bug spray, synthetic fragrances, sunscreen or antibacterial soap, to name a few.
- Pesticides and herbicides: contain poisonous compounds that often have effects on non-target organisms when released into water sources.
- Organic and inorganic compounds: phthalates, bisphenol A, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) and a lot of other chemicals with nearly unpronounceable names that act on humans as endocrine disrupters.
Because the threat of emerging contaminants is a relatively new idea, the standards and controls that would protect against these substances haven’t yet been put into place. The ultimate fate of most of these chemicals is unknown: will they degrade into harmless compounds? Will they bioaccumulate in the food web or living tissue? Will they be acutely toxic, or cause health problems with long-term exposure? Research is ongoing to quantify the mode of action and long-term effects of the contaminants.
A major concern is the occurrence of pharmaceutically-active compounds and hormones in drinking water sources. After the compounds pass through the human body they end up at a wastewater treatment plant, where the treatment process does not completely remove them from the water. In one study, 21 pharmaceutical compounds were identified in each of seven wastewater effluent samples. Fortunately, new treatment strategies are being developed that target these types of contaminants and action is being taken to put stricter regulations in place that will help keep chemicals out of our drinking water.
The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 was introduced earlier this year; the bill aims to prevent emerging chemical contaminants from entering the environment, specifically those that are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. Visit Clean Water Action’s website to learn more about the bill and ask your US Senators to sponsor it.