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article imageSynthetic chemicals — An ignored risk to ecological change

By Karen Graham     Feb 1, 2017 in Science
Concerns over the proliferation of synthetic chemicals and pesticides, in particular, gave rise to the environmental movement in the 1960s. But scientific analysis of synthetic chemical pollution and their ecological impacts is disproportionately low.
In a new study published in the journal Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment, it was found that the rate of change in the production and variety of pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and other synthetic chemicals has far exceeded the most previously recognized synthetic agents of global change.
There has been an incredible increase in the number of these chemicals produced in the last four decades, yet there has been little research on their environmental effects, leaving a glaring blind spot in our efforts to address global change and sustainability goals, says Emma J. Rosi, a freshwater ecologist at the Cary Institute and a co-author of the study.
Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Roche on Thursday posted an 18-percent hike in net profit for 2013  driv...
Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Roche on Thursday posted an 18-percent hike in net profit for 2013, driven particularly by rising sales of its cancer-fighting drugs
Philippe Huguen, AFP
"To date, global change assessments have ignored synthetic chemical pollution," Rosi told "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."
The team of researchers gathered and analyzed data on global synthetic chemical pollution dating back to the 1970s and compared that data to global trends for other climate change drivers, such as greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss.
Then the team surveyed ecological journals, U.S. ecological meeting presentations, and National Science Foundation grants for the same period, looking for research on synthetic chemicals.
A pesticide is being used on citrus fruits.
A pesticide is being used on citrus fruits.
Photo by USDA
Interestingly, the study found that only 1.0 percent of the journal articles, 1.3 percent of the presentations, and 0.01 percent of the NSF grants explored or even addressed the environmental effects of these chemicals, especially in developing countries.
Author Emily S. Bernhardt, professor of biogeochemistry at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, tells Seeker that at the 2015 meeting of the Ecological Society of America, with 5,000 attendees — the largest-ever conference of international ecologists —only 1.3 percent of the presentations, and that was 51 out of 3,831 abstracts, included anything to do with synthetic chemicals.
Barnhardt points out that research into synthetic chemicals and their relationship to climate change is particularly challenging. "A lot of questions are difficult to answer because most of the places where you really worry about chemical contamination have lots of different kinds of chemicals, and chemical identification and measurement is really hard."
A mosquito control inspector sprays pesticide to kill mosquitos as part of the US fight to control t...
A mosquito control inspector sprays pesticide to kill mosquitos as part of the US fight to control the Zika virus outbreak in Miami, Florida in August 2016
Joe Raedle, Getty/AFP/File
This kind of challenging research was the basis of a story Digital Journal's Tim Sandle reported on Monday. Researchers at the University of Buffalo discovered that exposure to some types of insecticides adversely affects melatonin receptor signaling, leading to a higher risk for metabolic diseases occurring, including type 2 diabetes.
There is another factor holding back more studies on synthetic chemicals. Not only are they expensive and time-consuming, but laboratory results don't always agree with real-world results. G. Allen Burton with the University of Michigan, said, "So often these chemicals behave drastically differently when released into the environment than in the lab."
"They're affected by sunlight, by temperature, other chemicals, organic matter, all kinds of things alter their form and potential toxicity. We can't just rely on our lab tests and our genetic markers, we have to have ecologists out there too."
Discharge pipe: The new study documents the finding of ammonium  iodide and artificial sweeteners at...
Discharge pipe: The new study documents the finding of ammonium, iodide and artificial sweeteners at high levels flowing into our rivers and streams.
US Department of Agriculture
Burton describes the number and variety of chemicals, albeit in low concentrations in may cases, that are contaminating our waterways, from pharmaceuticals to personal care products and more. "Scientifically, to look at the interactions of these thousands of chemicals is just mind-boggling, it's overwhelming. But Burton says we have to address this because we are morally obligated to do it, just like we are morally obligated to address climate change.
"Certainly, it's an international problem," Barnhardt said. "These chemicals don't respect international boundaries, so seeing attention on this subject on both national and international levels is what I'd really like to see happen."
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