Chemicals in the environment : implications for global sustainability

Plant, Jane; Korre, Anna; Reeder, Shaun; Smith, Barry; Voulvoulis, Nikolaos. 2005 Chemicals in the environment : implications for global sustainability. Transactions of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy Section B Applied Earth Science, 114 (2). 65-97.

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The impact of chemicals on the environment and human health is a cause of increasing concern. Although many studies continue to be carried out on this subject, most address only individual chemicals or particular groups of chemicals, such as metals or radioactive substances. In this paper, we consider the availability of data and knowledge about potentially harmful chemicals from the national to international scale and suggest a strategy to help prevent chemical pollution or deficiencies damaging global sustainability into the 21st century. The main groups of chemicals considered are: (i) Potentially harmful inorganic elements such as As, Cd, Hg and Pb known to have adverse physiological effects at low levels, and elements and species such as Se, I and NOx that can be essential or harmful depending on their concentration, speciation and bioavailability. Chemical elements such as Ga, In and the PGEs that are increasingly used in the development of new materials, including nanotechnology applications, are also discussed briefly. (ii) Radioactive substances, including naturally occurring radioisotopes, such as 238U and its decay products 226Ra and 222Rn, and processed materials, such as depleted uranium (DU), which affect the environment and human health because of their radiological and chemical toxicity. Data on isotopes from the nuclear industry, such as the relatively short-lived isotopes 137Cs and 90Sr, are also discussed, including from accidental releases such as Chernobyl in 1986. Isotopes with longer half-lives such as 243Am and 240Pu, which are important in the development of nuclear waste management strategies are also considered. (iii) Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) including many synthetic chemicals such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), flame retardants and their metabolites, which are characterised by their persistence, bioaccumulation (lipophilicity) and toxicity (PBT) properties. Other synthetic chemicals such as perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS), which have different bioaccumulation properties, are considered briefly. (iv) Human and veterinary pharmaceuticals, of which there is increasing evidence of their presence in the environment. These substances are of particular concern because many are designed to target specific biological receptors and hence can have potentially deleterious effects at exceptionally low concentrations. All these groups of chemicals include endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), capable of disrupting animal and human hormone systems (including sex and thyroid). Geochemical databases such as those prepared by the Forum of European Geological Surveys (FOREGS) and the British Geological Survey (BGS) provide systematic information on levels of inorganic chemicals in the environment. Similarly, airborne radiometric databases provide systematic information on the distribution of radioactive substances. Examples of such data are used to demonstrate how the distribution of chemicals in the environment can be mapped, and how modelling and monitoring systems derived from them are of strategic importance in understanding the impact of chemicals on ecosystems and human health from the national to global scale. There is concern, however, about the lack of such systematic data for organic chemicals. It is argued that such systematic data for all chemicals is crucial for sustaining the Earth's life-support systems into the 21st century.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
Programmes: BGS Programmes > Economic Minerals
ISSN: 0371-7453
Date made live: 15 Nov 2011 15:24 +0 (UTC)

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