In Practice: how to stop the dangerous chemicals seeping into our water

Mikael Khan of water treatment company, Arvia, discusses why chemical waste entering the environment is becoming harder to tackle in modern times, and what can be done to try and stop it from happening

The latest chemicals which have come under close scrutiny for their potentially dangerous effects are known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), and they are found in a startling number of everyday products. Up to now, they have been found in electronics, plastics, pesticides, cosmetics, toys, food containers and antibacterials, with the list likely to increase as research continues.

The endocrine system is one of the two main regulatory systems in the body which consists of glands that secrete hormones which are carried in the bloodstream around the body.

These hormones help to control bodily functions such as reproduction, growth, and development. An EDC is an exogenous substance that changes the function of the endocrine system, affecting the way an organism or it’s offspring reproduces, grows, or develops.

These EDCs are concerning because of their potential links to cancer, infertility, and developmental harm to children.

Shockingly, certain chemicals found in cosmetics interfere with hormone levels in the body and may lead to changes in breast tissue, which have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer.

There have been studies that uncovered “probable causation” between endocrine exposure and a range of conditions including autism, infertility, obesity and diabetes.

Identifying the scale of the problem

The first step towards eliminating these chemicals from the production process is identifying which chemicals can be classified as EDCs.

Before any legislation can begin to provide companies with the necessary push to comply with EDC usage and disposal, the full extent of our exposure to EDCs must be realised. Luckily, steps are being taken in the right direction to identify EDCs.

The UN recently released a list of chemicals which had been through at least one “thorough scientific assessment”, having been identified as potential EDCs. The list comprised 45 substances under 18 chemical groups including phthalates, bisphenols and parabens.

Policymakers are taking steps in the right direction with the introduction of regulations such as REACH which calls for the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals.

Entering the environment

Consumers can reduce their exposure to EDCs by avoiding certain cosmetic products, eating foods without pesticides and making sure rooms are properly vacuumed and ventilated, as chemicals are even found in dust.

Not only are we exposing ourselves to dangerous chemicals through the use of everyday products, we are inadvertently contaminating our water supplies.

Contamination of water by consumers occurs through the excretion of waste material from the body, as a large majority of the products are not fully metabolised.

Improper disposal of products which contain EDCs poses a problem. For example, with pharmaceuticals many people still believe the correct way to dispose of them is to flush them down the toilet.

In relation to the chemical industry, wastewater effluent from chemical manufacturing sites is also a major contributor to polluting the environment with EDCs. Wastewater discharged from chemical manufacturing sites along with pollution downstream from manufacturing plants has been subject to increasing attention.

Due to the various ways these contaminants are reaching our environment, river systems and waterways are now coursing with chemical waste. Often, trace levels of chemical waste are not removed by traditional treatment processes, meaning the same compounds can easily find their way into sources used for drinking water.

Treating our water

Traditional treatment of wastewater can partly eliminate or remove EDCs, but some traces will still be detectable in effluents.

In tertiary wastewater treatment processes such as Ozone, Hydrogen Peroxide and Reverse Osmosis, large doses of chemicals are used to eradicate trace level compounds. This often comes at a high price and can produce a toxic secondary waste which requires transportation and specialist secondary treatment.

This has created a demand for more economical and environmentally-friendly solutions.

The final stage of water treatment, when only trace levels of pollutants reside in wastewater, has always been challenging. However, there are now state of the art solutions for the reduction of hard-to-treat organic compounds from water and wastewater streams.

A united approach

With a problem as widespread as this, there is no easy-fix. The eventual removal and replacement of dangerous chemicals is the obvious end-goal, however in the meantime, steps must be taken to reduce our exposure to them.

The pharmaceutical industry has similar issues with wastewater effluents and it would be beneficial to see similar steps employed surrounding EDCs from all sectors.

Take-back and disposal schemes, green pharmaceuticals, eco-labels on packaging, compulsory prescription of pharmaceuticals with high environmental impact and awareness-raising are all being introduced to tackle the problem.

On a consumer level, education surrounding these dangerous chemicals is one of the most powerful tools to counteracting the problem. Fortunately, this information is steadily reaching the public sphere, with companies now offering products which are free from dangerous EDCs.

In terms of wastewater treatment, companies must use regulations as a starting point and look for further options to reduce the amount of micropollutants entering the environment.

It is reassuring to see the issue is being raised by policymakers, putting the issue firmly on the political agenda.

The effects of EDCs on our bodies and the environment could be extremely damaging and wastewater treatment must form part of an industry-wide effort to counteract the problem.


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