Reports show that Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals are entering the environment at unsafe levels for both humans and wildlife. Here, Mike Lodge,  CEO at water and wastewater treatment specialist Arvia Technology discusses the issue and how the chemical industry can address the problem.

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) are accumulating in the environment from a variety of sources. The chemicals can mimic the body’s natural hormones and have been linked to various health issues.

The endocrine system is one of the two main regulatory systems in the body which consists of glands that secrete hormones which are carried in the bloodstream around the body. These hormones help to control bodily functions such as reproduction, growth, and development. An EDC is an exogenous substance that changes the function of the endocrine system, affecting the way an organism or it’s offspring reproduces, grows, or develops.

These chemicals have been found in a variety of everyday products such as electronics, plastics, pesticides, cosmetics, toys, food containers and antibacterials.

Examples of EDCs include bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, certain pesticides, and pollutants such as dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

The list of potential health issues which EDCs have been linked to includes asthma, obesity, diabetes, reproductive abnormalities and infertility.

Research has found that some even potentially cause cancer.

Entering our water supplies

Consumers can reduce their exposure to EDCs by avoiding certain cosmetic products and eating organic foods that do not contain pesticides. Even making sure rooms are properly cleaned and ventilated can be a way to avoid EDCs as research has found that household dust can collect chemicals from electronics, furniture, baby products and more.

Luckily, knowledge surrounding EDCs is increasing, however there are still a vast number of products which include the dangerous chemicals, making it difficult to completely avoid exposure to them.

In addition to direct exposure, we are also unintentionally contaminating our water supplies.

One of the ways in which contamination of water occurs is through the excretion of waste material from the body. A large majority of the chemicals used in cosmetics and pesticides are not fully metabolised, meaning they are then passed into our water.

Improper disposal of products which contain EDCs poses a problem, with many people still believing the correct way to dispose of unused pharmaceuticals is to flush them down the toilet.

In relation to the chemical industry, wastewater effluent from manufacturing sites is also a major contributor to polluting the environment with EDCs. Wastewater discharged from these facilities has been subject to increasing attention.

Due to the various ways these contaminants are reaching our environment, many river systems and waterways are now coursing with chemical waste. Often, trace levels of chemical waste are not removed by traditional treatment processes, meaning the same compounds could find their way into sources used for drinking water.

If the problem is to be tackled, a holistic approach is needed from both consumers and the chemical industry alike.

Beginning to tackle the problem

With an issue of this scale, finding a single solution is unrealistic. Beginning to understand which chemicals carry the potentially damaging effects is a step in the right direction.

Worryingly, approximately 1,000 chemicals have been reported to potentially have endocrine disrupting effects.

Education on EDCs will help everyday consumers of products; however, the responsibility also falls on chemical manufacturers to reduce the amount of chemicals they use which are already known to have dangerous effects.

Fortunately, policymakers are taking steps in the right direction with the introduction of regulations such as REACH which calls for the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals.

The UN recently released a list of chemicals which had been through at least one “thorough scientific assessment”, having been identified as potential EDCs. The list comprised 45 substances under 18 chemical groups including phthalates, bisphenols and parabens.

The reduction and eventual removal of EDCs from products and manufacturing processes is the only complete solution for chemical companies, however with an issue of this magnitude, this will inevitably take time.

Environmentally-friendly wastewater treatment

The effective removal of chemical compounds from wastewater streams on-site at chemical manufacturing sites is the initial step. However, although traditional wastewater treatment processes can partly remove EDCs, some traces will still be detectable in effluents.

Many tertiary wastewater treatment processes such as Ozone, Hydrogen Peroxide and Fentons use large doses of chemicals to eradicate trace level compounds. Not only does chemical dosing come at a high price, it also produces a toxic sludge which requires transportation and specialist secondary treatment. This has created a demand for more economical and environmentally-friendly solutions, as in most cases, these processes are not sustainable long-term options.

The good news is that technology is rapidly advancing in this area. There are now state of the art solutions for the reduction of hard-to-treat contaminants from water and wastewater streams.

Advances in technology mean that it is now possible to remove part per million to part per billion levels of EDCs, pharmaceutical residues, personal care products, manufacturing chemicals and pesticides from wastewater.

Arvia’s Nyex™ solution combines adsorption with electrochemical oxidation to provide an alternative solution to treat water without chemical dosing or sludge production. Organic compounds are selectively targeted, adsorbed and oxidised, leaving the wastewater stream safe and compliant for discharge to the sewer, the environment or reuse.

Conveniently, the system capable of effecting these changes can be easily integrated into an existing treatment train, requiring minimal manpower and maintenance. Rather than treating the whole body of water, organisations can now be more selective, targeting the problematic compounds with smaller operating costs.

Effective wastewater treatment at the source of pollution is the first step in addressing an issue which is widespread. There are alternative treatment options available to support with environmental strategies and manufacturing best practice.

Policymakers are already taking the right steps with the registration and evaluation of EDCs – however both the chemical industry and consumers must begin to counteract the wider problem through the reduction in use and reliance on products which include these chemicals.

The effects of EDCs on our bodies and the environment could be extremely damaging and wastewater treatment must form part of an industry wide effort to counteract the problem.

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