Assessing risk of chemicals to wildlife is huge challenge that requires a new approach - UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH)

Computer modelling and long-term ecological monitoring will be essential to assess the environmental risks of the rapidly growing number of chemicals across the world, according to a new review paper in the journal Science.

The analysis, led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), says the sheer number of chemicals and substances is making it increasingly challenging to carry out the risk assessments required to check all products are completely safe for wildlife.

The EU’s REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) regulation 2006 set an important precedent – that the onus to demonstrate a chemical was safe for humans and the environment should lie with the manufacturer. However, out of more than 100,000 chemicals on the market in Europe, only a small fraction have been thoroughly evaluated for their potential harmful impacts on humans and the environment.

Professor Andrew Johnson of UKCEH, lead author of the paper, explains that, for example, there has been a lot of evaluation of the effects of pesticides on the environment but not washing detergents, despite their widespread use. He adds pharmaceuticals do not need an environmental risk assessment, and there has been little research into the potential impacts of several key classes of drugs on wildlife.

The paper’s authors say this approach requires greater co-operation between scientists across different disciplines, and are calling on ecotoxicologists and environmental chemists to collaborate with ecologists. One example of best practice of retrospective risk assessment and multidisciplinary collaboration, cited in the paper, is the investigative research carried out after declines were noted in bee populations. Several global studies, including UKCEH’s pan-European field trial in 2014/15, showed that exposure to certain neonicotinoids had a negative impact on bees, resulting in EU bans on those pesticides.

Professor Johnson explains: “Our current system of chemical risk assessment is based on prospective rather than both prospective and retrospective analysis. Long-term environmental monitoring is not normally at the front of the queue for receiving funding, but it’s cost effective and can provide the most compelling evidence of whether our use of chemicals is sustainable.”

Access the paper: Andrew C. Johnson, Xiaowei Jin, Norihide Nakada, John P. Sumpter. 2020. Learning from the past and considering the future of chemicals in the environment. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.aay6637

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