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Regulating Environmental Contaminants

December 13, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 50

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I was delighted to read Cheryl Hogue’s article “Blueprints for Chemical Control,” and I applaud the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to phase out the use of toxic chemicals (C&EN, Oct. 4, page 30). Controlling the manufacturing of these compounds will inevitably decrease their presence in the environment, thereby protecting human and environmental health.

When I reflect on the 95 organic wastewater-derived contaminants found by Dana W. Kolpin et al. (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es011055j) showing up in water bodies, sediments, and aquatic organisms across the U.S., it seems clear that the time to consider regulation of trace organic contaminants has come. Environmental engineers are currently tackling issues surrounding water and wastewater treatment of these compounds to protect human and environmental health; however, our treatment objectives have not been properly defined. Obviously, determining (and treating) the threat from nonpoint sources such as agricultural and urban runoff is even more difficult. Furthermore, questions still surround the toxicological effects of these compounds in aquatic organisms and humans.

Given the large number of trace organic contaminants being detected in the environment, I wonder how EPA plans to address this emerging concern. Will the agency continue to set individual maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for compounds, or will more inclusive regulations that correspond to the ultimate toxicological activity associated with a water, soil, or sediment sample abound? C&EN’s article implies that EPA is contemplating making manufacturers conduct toxicity testing; I think a similar approach would prove useful on the regulatory side.

For example, estrogenicity assays can be used to determine the estrogenic activity of a water sample, rather than analyzing for dozens of hormones and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Regulatory limits could be drawn up as a function of the total estrogenic activity, rather than through the setting of dozens of new MCLs. Given the potential for these compounds to interact with each other, causing synergistic or antagonistic effects, it seems that activity-based metrics make sense. Furthermore, the logistics of monitoring individual trace organic compounds are quite daunting.

Again, I support EPA’s efforts to address this issue, but I am curious about how future regulations will be written. Will they come as a response to public concern, as was the case with this group of chemicals, or will they be preemptory and allow incorporation of future chemicals and changing chemical-use patterns?

Lee Blaney
Austin, Texas



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