Contaminants of Emerging Concern: Sound science, personal choice

People who have worked with me long enough have heard me say “There’s perfect, and there’s done,” usually followed by “and I want ‘done.’” If they could read my internal voice, they’d also know that another of my mantras is “it’s never as simple as you think it’s going to be.” Both of these “isms” apply to the work of a group of scientists that met at Wingspread earlier this week.

Seventeen leading experts, from universities, manufacturing, and government, each of whom studies some aspect of the new chemicals being introduced into our environment, met for four days to develop a research framework that will address contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in a comprehensive, integrated way, and to coordinate research plans, engage the scientific community, and move toward real solutions to this problem.
Their work builds on a rich history at Wingspread where, from 1991 through 1996, we held a series of five conferences addressing some of the early concerns about chemical-induced alternations observed in wildlife and their potential impacts on human populations. At the end of the recent retreat, three of the experts stayed on and shared the group’s insights and thinking with the community.
Drs. Rebecca Klaper (Univ. of Wisconsin – Milwaukee), Paige Novak (Univ. of Minnesota) and William Arnold (Univ. of Minnesota), shared some of their research results with an audience representing industry, activists, regulators, water suppliers, attorneys, and more. Here are but a few of the things they discussed, along with links either to their research or related information for those of you who want to dig a little deeper:
  • One of the categories of new concerns are ‘nanomaterials’, particles that are less than 100 microns, and can be found in flame retardants, fragrances (e.g. shampoo), pharmaceuticals, sunscreen, and much, much more. While it is known that these particles are accumulating in tissue of animals as remote as polar bears, it is less clear whether or not they are doing any harm.
  • Hormones and hormone-like compounds are present in our wastewater and have the effect of feminizing fish (e.g. male fish testes have eggs), causing the infamous ‘intersex’ fish that the US Geological Survey has found in rivers and streams throughout most of the nation. While we know that fish (living in a bath of hormone-like compounds) are affected, it is less clear whether these compounds impact humans. Over recent decades, scientists have observed earlier onset of puberty in girls, increased rates of childhood cancer, and decreased sperm quantity and quality in men, but whether or not this is caused by (or merely correlated with) new chemicals in our environment is not yet known.
  • Antimicrobial soaps frequently contain Triclosan, a chemical that breaks down into four specific dioxin compounds. These specific dioxins are building up in the lake sediments which Dr. Arnold studies.
  • Flouxetine (aka Prozac), the leading prescription medication in the nation, is building up in the Milwaukee harbor which Dr. Klaper studies. Her research includes efforts to determine whether or not this has an impact on the fish living in Prozac-laden waters.
So what’s a person to do? Choices are not always as simple as we might initially think they are. Sunscreen prevents skin cancer, but introduces pollutants into the environment. We don’t have the data to allow a perfect comparison of risks, but if you are fair-skinned (like me) the balance probably tips more easily in the direction of using the sunscreen. Of course, I can make behavioral choices that allow me to use less sunscreen (e.g., sit in the shade, wear a wide-brimmed hat), but those come at a cost too. (Who wants hat hair?)
Clearly the panelists had thought about this before. As scientists, they are schooled in the art of needing 95% or 99% confidence for their conclusions to have merit. By comparison, forensic trials need only 51% certainty to reach a conclusion.  How much evidence is enough to allow society to make a decision about the amount of exposure it wants? If we wait for perfect data, and absolutely certain conclusions, we may never reach a decision. As I’ve said before, there’s perfect, and there’s done.
About a decade ago, there was growing concern about antibiotics used in Danish swine and poultry production. Some worried that it was contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans, but others were concerned that the swine industry (which is fundamental to the Danish economy) would suffer if antibiotics were restricted. Faced with making policy decisions in the face of imperfect knowledge, the nation chose to err on the side of human health and in 1998 began banning broad spectrum antibiotic use in agriculture. While there were some initial impacts to the swine industry, apparently those were short-lived and the industry continues to thrive.  Meanwhile, antibiotic resistance in meat and on farms has decreased.
Not all choices are so clear cut.  Much of the four-day meeting the scientists attended at Wingspread focused on finding ways to get smarter about research and regulation so that new chemicals could be evaluated more effectively, decisions made more quickly, and human lives improved.  While their work is far from done, they did leave us with a few suggestions for things we can do in our daily lives to reduce unintended exposure to some of these contaminants of emerging concern:
  • Use regular soap and water to wash your hands.  Unless you have a compromised immune system, there is no benefit to using antimicrobial soaps containing Triclosan.
  • When eating fish, avoid eating the brain or liver, both of which accumulate toxins that the fish may have been exposed to.
  • Read the labels of items you are purchasing, and avoid unnecessary products or ingredients.  (Maybe this is a version of ‘Simplify’?)
  • Use less plastic and avoid putting it in the microwave. Especially try to avoid putting food into plastics labeled #3, #5, or #7, which are more likely to have contaminants of concern than other plastics.
  • Take off your shoes when you enter the house.  Shoes track in many unwanted contaminants.
But above all, they recommended, don’t panic.  Learn what you can, think about your options, and make the choices that are the best for you.

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