Contaminants of Emerging Concern: Should you be worried?
Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs) are a variety of newly recognized contaminants in water such as caffeine, hormones, and flame retardants. Because these chemicals have only recently been discovered, unforeseen consequences of releasing them into the environment are preceding effective regulation at the cost of human and environmental health. We are exposed to these contaminants in the water we bathe in or drink, and even some of the foods we eat. There are tens of thousands of CECs that have been identified as potentially harmful to humans and ecological systems. Here is a rough breakdown of the source of these contaminants:
Industrial Compounds: 88%
Food Additives: 3%
Cosmetics and Additives: 6%
However regulatory measures addressing CECs are still in the works, and have yet to come into effect. With the global chemical production expected to increase at a rate of 3% annually, scientists and regulators are experiencing the beginning of an incoming boomerang of chemical residue that has been lingering and building up in our closed environment for generations.
Current scientific methods are unprepared to handle the problem at hand. We stand amidst a necessary paradigm shift in effective regulation. The traditional, slowly developing risk-based approach to chemical regulation would cost copious amounts of time and money if implemented for every CEC identified to date. So what are policy makers doing in California? “We are currently in the investigative phase, and developing regulatory limits would be premature at this time,” state the regulators and scientists in California’s 2009 CEC Workshop to Develop Processes for the Prioritizing, Monitoring, and Determining Thresholds of concern. So it’s clear there’s a problem and regulatory parties have openly admitted they lack the knowledge and resources to effectively address it. And although the EPA itself has established a lengthy list of general methods to detect and regulate CECS on such as hexavalent chromium and diesel on a national level, there methods serve only “to be of interest” and are not in effect.
How do CECs affect you as you go about your day? Well, unfortunately in this unchartered territory there is no complete answer. With pharmaceuticals being found in the drinking water of over 40 million Americans, these contaminants are posing a real risk to health. Trace hormones in water have already been shown to alter sexual characteristics in amphibians and fish. Right off the coast of California, male flat fish are displaying female reproductive tissue from overexposure to estrogen and progesterone. These hormones reach the ocean in treated wastewater. And if you drink recycled water, which can be found in some bottled water and the tap water of many counties including Orange County, these trace pharmaceuticals could be there too.
Here we are playing a waiting game to see the long-term effects CECs will have on our bodies and the complex chemical pathways they require to run properly. We are a generation of guinea pigs, or as the EPA would call, we are real life participants in their “analytical method for unregulated contaminants.” There is no doubt our nation’s government is stretched thin under current conditions. And yet we assume they will change their regulatory practices on a dime and rightly protect our health and water quality. In the past this expectation would seem reasonable, but sadly today it no longer is.
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