Emerging contaminants: a challenge to tackle

Microplastics, antibiotics, PFOA and PFOS are some of the new compounds that are studied in order to know their possible environmental impacts.

Nowadays, the great challenge on the environmental sector is to be in a continuous learning process, since legal regulations, production techniques, the development of new materials and even the contaminants can constantly change. Given this scenario, the knowledge of a multidisciplinary team of experts is necessary to generate ideas that can figure out proper solutions.

Amongst the novelties that we need to deal with, the emerging contaminants stand out. There is not a standard definition for them, but we could say that they are chemical compounds (of natural or synthetic origin), microorganisms or materials that are potentially contaminant, but that are seldom monitored. Therefore, revised or standard data about their impact on the human health or ecosystems are not available. Those chemical which their standards and regulations are constantly evolving according to science new contributions can also be included in this category.

In some cases, the discharge of emerging chemicals into the environment may have occurred for long time, and not been noticeable until new detection methods were developed. The synthesis of new chemicals and new waste treatments may have also given place to new sources of emerging contaminants.

The origin of these contaminants is multiple, as well as its presence on the subsoil and the effects they could mean to aquifers. The contributions to aquifers may come from water treatment plants that receive domestic and municipal waste waters, along with the originated from health facilities, septic tanks leakages from residential zones, agriculture and livestock activities discharges, landfills, or aviation sites related to the use of large amounts of fire extinguishers or flame-retardants.

Chemicals of different nature are currently considered to be emerging compounds. Amongst them, microplastics, antibiotics, other pharmaceutical compounds, PFOA and PFOS stand out for the interest they generate.

Their study supposes a challenge to tackle that will require a joint effort from both the scientific and environmental communities. The goals to pursue will be to determine the mix of compounds that should be analyzed, to have a better knowledge of their toxicological properties individually or in a complex mixture, to have laboratories that guarantee robustness on their detection methodologies, as well as to count with regulatory entities determined to apply harmonized criteria on the subject.

From the environmental consultant field, the interaction with the different areas that will be participating on the emerging contaminants studies should be maximized. It will be crucial for obtaining a transversal consensus in their regulation, analysis and further remediation.

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