A case of over exposure

On 20 October, the Environment Agency (EA) set out its strategy for prioritising and managing risks to human health and the environment arising from environmental exposure to the thousands of everyday chemicals that are used by the public and industry.

Under the strategy, entitled Managing chemicals for a better environment, the Agency sets out a systematic approach prioritising its action on everyday chemicals.

Groups of industrial chemicals that are being subjected to scrutiny include flame retardants, chlorinated paraffins, plastic additives and perfluorinated chemicals. Chemicals which are approved under other regulatory regimes don’t escape the Agency’s attention with studies underway on pharmaceuticals, veterinary medicines and pesticides.

Steve Killeen, head of air and chemicals policy, said: “There are an increasing number of stories in the press about health or environmental concerns about everyday household products. People don’t understand the role of the Agency and other organisations in tackling this. In our strategy we set this straight, explaining our role and how we can prioritise our activities to minimise risks to human health and the environment.”

For example, the EA has recently completed research focusing on commonly used pharmaceuticals. In its study, the Agency reviewed 500 of the most commonly used pharmaceuticals in England and Wales and monitored for 12 thought to pose the greatest potential environmental threat: a range of painkillers, antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs and anti depressants.

Of these, 10 were found in WwTw effluents and eight were detected in the rivers receiving these effluents. The widely used painkiller ibuprofen was found at the highest concentrations, but none of the pharmaceuticals were found at levels which were high enough to cause immediate toxic impacts to fish or waterborne insects – but not enough information is available to confirm whether the levels measured had the potential to result in more subtle, long-term effects. The Agency is calling for an industry led research programme to be commissioned to provide reassurance that the levels being found are unlikely to cause significant harm to the environment.

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