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COLUMN: Common household items draw ire over toxicity

The 33rd annual meeting of the SETAC North America 2012 conference
Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 11/30/2012 2:41:00 PM

The annual conferences of the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) can be one of the best forums for industry to identify upcoming issues in environment and toxicology.

Many of the some 800 sessions — and a similar number of posters — present preliminary results from as yet unpublished research by university, government and industry. Many of the reports detail analytical methods, but enough of them present research findings that it’s surprising more consumer product developers and industrial science advisors don’t attend. (Procter and Gamble was among the small number of industry organizations that were well represented both as presenters and participants.)

The 33rd annual meeting of the SETAC North America 2012 conference was held November 11 to 15, 2012 in Long Beach, California. Some sessions focused on current priorities, such as the continuing impacts of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the impact of flame retardants in the environment, and the fate of mercury and the oil sands.

A significant amount of the university-level research focused on environmental effects in the aquatic environment. Apparently, funding agencies are, for reasons unknown, paying less attention to airborne contaminants than they have in the past. A large number of sessions introduced discussion about subjects that one does not yet hear about in the mainstream media.

One of the most frequently discussed topics was that of nanoparticles. The scientific community still seems quite divided on the topic. Some research shows that nanoparticles may have significant environmental and health risks which differ from those of the substrate material, while other research shows that nanomaterial risks are not significantly different from those of the substrate. It would appear that this will continue to be an area of scientific controversy until better methods are developed to study the environmental effects of these tiny particles.

Research results indicate that flame retardant chemicals, found in sources such as household products and electronic waste recycling, continue to raise significant concerns in residential and environmental situations. These substances, many of which are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic, are being found in an increasing number of locations in developed and developing countries.

There were several papers addressing the perceived ocean plastic waste problem. It was interesting to note that several researchers agreed that there is little or no connection between plastic particles in the ocean and plastic shopping bag use on land. Flexible plastics do not generally degrade to plastic particles. The plastic particle problem seems to come primarily from the use of plastic nano and microfine particles in personal care products, particularly body wash products with a scrubbing element, and from the grinding down of rigid plastics by ocean action.

There is evidence that plastic particles adsorb toxic substances such as pesticides and antibiotics, and therefore pose an additional risk when ingested by ocean organisms.

A few substances were identified as possible emerging contaminants. Among these are some common detergent and personal care product ingredients and the sweetener sucralose. There appears to be growing evidence of the inadequacy of municipal sewage treatment plants to remove some of these emerging contaminants from the effluent stream. 

Research results on dispersants use during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill still seem ambiguous, but some research is suggesting that dispersants may actually increase the toxicity of spilled oil.

The biodegradability of dispersants and household products is becoming a controversial topic. Some research suggests that standard Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tests for biodegradability may mask environmental effects data. The problem relates to the way the OECD tests handle the non-biodegradable — aqueous and inorganic — portions of a product composed of a mixture of compounds. Major industry players are seeking to achieve an industry consensus on new tools for measurement of biodegradability.

Endocrine disrupting substances have been a focus of much research attention since Theo Colborne's book Our Stolen Future in 1996. Although it’s too early to suggest a consensus has been reached, the SETAC North America 2012 conference certainly suggested that it will not be too long before the majority of the environmental science community concludes that these substances pose a measurable and significant risk, especially to the males of species.

The annual meeting+ seemed to be paying less attention to lifecycle assessment (LCA) techniques and results than in years gone by, perhaps due to funding constraints. I, in fact, presented a paper suggesting why this may be so.

Despite government policies suggesting use of LCA as support for green product claims in Canada and the U.S., brand owners have found that current LCA methodologies are either too expensive or too inconclusive for consumer products.

Members of the SETAC LCA advisory group indicated that they planned to ensure LCA receives more high-profile attention on the SETAC North America 2013 conference agenda.

The abstract book for the 2012 SETAC North America conference — one of the most concise annual assemblages of ongoing environmental toxicology research — with author names provided, is available here.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist who has been advising governments and the private sector on issues such as waste reduction, reuse, recycling, stewardship, environmental management, and social responsibility since 1980. He is currently working for the CIAL Group.  


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