22 questions for a less toxic planet


Understanding how chemicals really work in the environment is the first step to getting pollution under control, according to international experts. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


Chemicals in the environment interact with plants, animals and each other in unpredictable ways.
Chemicals in the environment interact with plants, animals and each other in unpredictable ways.
Jose A. Bernat Bacete / Getty Images

Unchecked chemical-based environmental pollution threatens our supplies of food, water and energy, damages human health, leads to biodiversity loss, and heightens the advance of climate change and associated extreme weather, according to an international consortium of experts working under the auspices of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). What’s more, research and regulatory bodies around the world fail to understand the magnitude of the problem.

The SETAC team has called for urgent action in establishing a fundamental change to the way we study and communicate the impacts and control of chemicals in the natural environment.

Their report, published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, has identified 22 research questions that matter the most to the broad community so that research and regulatory efforts can be applied to the most pressing problems.

The report centres on the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and its 17 sustainable development goals, which came into force in 2016 and aims to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all, and which depends for its success on a healthy and productive environment.

Although the report is European-based, its authors took input from SETAC members in Africa, the Asia Pacific region, Europe, Latin America and North America.

The report says many questions need to be addressed about the risks of chemicals in the environment, “and it will be impossible to tackle them all”.

“There is therefore an urgent need to identify the research questions that matter most to the broad community across sectors and multiple disciplines so that research and regulatory efforts can be focused on the most pressing ones.”

Our understanding of how chemicals affect the environment and human health is still poorly developed, the report says. For example, most research and regulation considers the impacts of individual substances, yet in the real environment chemicals are present with hundreds or thousands of other substances and influencing agents.

Studies to support research and regulation tend to focus on single species rather than populations and communities. Variations in the nature of the environment in time and space, which will affect chemical influence, are hardly accounted for in research and risk assessments.

“Considering chemicals in isolation can result in a simplistic assessment that doesn’t account for the complexity of the real world,” says one of the study’s lead authors, Alistair Boxall, from the University of York, in Britain.

“A fish won't be exposed to a single chemical but to hundreds if not thousands of chemicals,” he says. “Other pressures, such as temperature stress, will also be at play, and it is likely that these components work together to adversely affect ecosystem health.”

The report says Europe faces significant challenges regarding the risk assessment and management of chemicals and other factors, which constrains the region's ability to achieve sustainable development.

“This study is the first attempt to set a research agenda for the European research community for the assessment and management of stressor impacts on environmental quality,” it says. “The questions arising from this exercise are complex. To answer them, it will be necessary to adopt a systems approach for environmental risk assessment and management. In particular, it is important that we establish novel partnerships across sectors, disciplines, and policy areas, which requires new and effective collaboration, communication, and co-ordination.”

Boxall says studies similar to this one are being performed in North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia and Australasia. “Taken together, these exercises should help to focus global research into the impacts of chemicals in the environment.”

The researchers say they hope their study is a first step in a longer process. “The results of this project now need to be disseminated to the policy, business, and scientific communities. The output should be used for setting of research agendas and to inform the organisation of scientific networking activities to discuss these questions in more detail and identify pathways for future work.”

The 22 questions

  1. How can interactions among different stress factors operating at different levels of biological organisation be accounted for in environmental risk assessment?
  2. How do we improve risk assessment of environmental stressors to be more predictive across increasing environmental complexity and spatiotemporal scales?
  3. How can we define, distinguish, and quantify the effects of multiple stressors on ecosystems?
  4. How can we develop mechanistic modelling to extrapolate adverse effects across levels of biological organisation?
  5. How can we properly characterise the chemical use, emissions, fate, and exposure at different spatial and temporal scales?
  6. Which chemicals are the main drivers of mixture toxicity in the environment?
  7. What are the key ecological challenges arising from global megatrends?
  8. How can we develop, assess, and select the most effective mitigation measures for chemicals in the environment?
  9. How do sublethal effects alter individual fitness and propagate to the population and community levels?
  10. Biodiversity and ecosystem services: What are we trying to protect, where, when, why, and how?
  11. What approaches should be used to prioritise compounds for environmental risk assessment and management?
  12. How can monitoring data be used to determine whether current regulatory risk‐assessment schemes are effective for emerging contaminants?
  13. How can we improve in silico methods for environmental fate and effects estimation?
  14. How can we integrate evolutionary and ecological knowledge to better determine vulnerability of populations and communities to stressors?
  15. How do we create high‐throughput strategies for predicting environmentally relevant effects and processes?
  16. How can we better manage, use, and share data to develop more sustainable and safer products?
  17. Which interactions are not captured by currently accepted mixture toxicity models?
  18. How can we assess the environmental risk of emerging and future stressors?
  19. How can we integrate comparative risk assessment, life cycle analysis, and risk–benefit analysis to identify and design more sustainable alternatives?
  20. How can we improve the communication of risk to different stakeholders?
  21. How do we detect and characterise difficult‐to‐measure substances in the environment?
  22. Where are the hotspots of key contaminants around the globe?
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://setac.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/etc.4205
  2. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf
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