World facing flood of new toxins

Common household products like cleansers, personal care products and food packaging are responsible for a flood of potentially dangerous new pollutants making their way into our drinking water, warns an international expert in environmental chemistry.

Dr. Susan Richardson of the University of California told participants at the CleanUp 2015 conference in Melbourne that the world needs to prepare for a flood of new contaminants, some of which are even more toxic than traditional pollutants such as heavy metals. These toxins are already finding their way into the world’s rivers, lakes, groundwater and drinking water – and into our homes and bodies.

The new toxins arise from a wide range of day-to-day products: artificial sweeteners, perfumes, medical drugs, hormones, sunscreens, flame retardants, non-stick coatings, and the by-products of detergents, disinfectants and swimming pool cleansers. They also come from nanomaterials, pesticide breakdown products and hospital wastes.

“These products get washed off in the shower or flushed down the toilet and travel to wastewater plants. Some of them become toxic once they react with the chlorine or chloramine with which the water is treated,” she says. “It’s bad news because our wastewater treatments, which are designed to remove ‘traditional’ waste, cannot treat these toxins efficiently. There is no one-size-fits-all way to clean up all of them.”

Dr. Richardson and her team are researching better ways to detect these contaminants. As some of them are difficult to treat, it may be more effective to remove the ‘precursor’ molecules before they react with chlorine in the wastewater treatment process and turn toxic. The world also needs to be made more aware of these emerging contaminants.

Left undetected and untreated, these toxins can be hazardous to humans, with some already linked to conditions such as cancer, obesity, lower intelligence and infertility, warns Dr. Richardson.


Photo credit: Jacek Cieplinski, flickr/Creative Commons

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