Ecologists Aren’t Paying Enough Attention to Synthetic Chemicals—to the Detriment of Public Health

Feb 16, 2017 by

Environment

Humans are making more chemicals than ever before, but we remain largely unaware of their ecological consequences.


A worried child wearing a protective face mask to prevent virus infection or pollution.
Photo Credit: Johan Larson/Shutterstock

Manmade chemicals may alter ecological processes, yet few scientists are studying the role of these chemicals in global environmental change, say a group of researchers from the U.S. and Germany in a scientific paper recently published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

In recent decades, humans have increased production of chemicals faster than we’ve made other changes to Earth’s land, air and water, such as increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and destroying habitat. Yet by and large, science isn’t studying the ecological consequences of chemical contaminants, the researchers conclude. Less than 2 percent of funding from a major U.S. source and studies published in mainstream ecological journals and presented at an international meeting deal with the study of synthetic chemicals.

The researchers analyzed trends since the 1970s in the quantity and number of different synthetic chemicals produced using global trade value as a stand-in for the total quantity of chemicals produced.

“The rate of increase in the production and diversification of pharmaceuticals and pesticides exceeds that of most previously recognized agents of global change and matches the rate of increase in global [nitrogen] fertilizer use,” reports the team, led by Emily Bernhardt, an ecologist at Duke University. The researchers don’t report the quantity of produced chemicals entering the environment as contaminants.

Synthetic chemicals are one of the hallmarks of the modern era. Some such chemicals and their breakdown products degrade slowly. They can enter the food web and create long-lasting problems in the environment. Other chemicals, while they may break down quickly, are so ubiquitous that there’s a constant risk of environmental exposure.

Despite environmental concerns about the rapid proliferation of synthetic chemicals, scientists rarely study the ecological impacts, the researchers found. Fewer than 1 percent of published ecological studies over the past 25 years mentioned synthetic chemicals according to the researchers, who looked at papers in 20 mainstream ecology journals. At an international ecological conference in 2015, 1.3 percent of presentations included mention of contaminants. And just 0.006 percent of all current funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology — a major source of funding for U.S. ecologists — was devoted to studying the effects of synthetic chemicals on the environment. It was a single grant worth $20,252.

The resulting “knowledge gap,” say the researchers, may make it harder to achieve sustainability goals such as ocean health and biodiversity protection. They say NSF should fund more ecological contaminants research — especially research that looks at how chemical pollution might compound the effects of other stressors, such as warming temperatures, on plants and animals.

Lindsey Konkel is a New Jersey–based freelance journalist. She writes about science, health and the environment. Her work has appeared at print and online publications, including Newsweek, National Geographic News and Environmental Health Perspectives.

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