Endocrine disrupting chemicals: sustainability and/or resilience?

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and their adverse effects are discussed by Alberto Mantovani, from Endocrine Disruptors Project, at the Instituto Superiore di Sanita.

A “sustainable” development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. For example, “sustanaible food safety” encompasses the actions that, by enforcing the safety and nutritional quality of today’s food, can prevent or reduce the risks and burden of poor health for generations to come. The current concern about Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDC) stems from the programming function of hormones during development: scientific evidence supports that chemicals able to interfere with the programming role of hormones during prenatal and postnatal development can cause adverse effects that do not become evident until later in life.

Disruption of the endocrine homeostasis in adulthood also deserves attention; however, the issue of the EDC-related health risks is largely and mostly relevant to the broader issue  of developmental origins of health and disease. Exposure to EDC is, therefore, mainly a long-term concern for the health of the developing organism, hence, it is definitely relevant to the health prevention aspects of sustainability. The European Union approach -as implemented in the regulations on chemical substances (REACH), pesticides and biocides- considers EDC as posing equivalent concern as established categories of “substances of very high concern” (e.g., carcinogens): as a consequence, substances identified to EDC have to be restricted (i.e., banning at least from main usages) and replaced with safer substitutes. The European approach to EDC is, thus, adressing sustainable development: true, the envisaged steps need a robust, consistent and transparent strategy for identifying EDC, which has still to be fully implemented.

The experience of “legacy contaminants”, however, tells that updated, stricter regulations may not be the happy end of the story. Legacy contaminants are chemicals,which remain in the environment long after their producyion and use have been banned. Beyond environmental persistence, legacy contaminants may bioaccumulate along food chains, thus posing a long-standing issue of food safety: PCB and polybrominated flame retardants are examples of bioaccumulating EDC. Widespread pollutants need not to bioaccumulate in order to pose a “legacy” problem. For example, in intensively farmed areas residues of banned pesticides can be found in water comparments, which may represent an environmental reservoir of outdated, but still potentially active, chemicals.

Disposal of chemical waste

Another situation is the disposal of chemical waste from factories. Different from the EU polict, where hazards related to EDC have primarily to be identified, these scenarios call for risk assessment (i.e., integrating hazard and exposure) in order to adress risk management. Here we enter, at least partly, in the domain of resilience: the system has been stressed and it needs adaptation in order to go on functioning. Resilience measures need not be complex, they should be adress the specific risk situation and achieve the intended protection goals: banning the use of certain sources of household water while providing suitable alternative sources can be viewed as a basic resilience strategy. In farming scenarios food-producing animals may bioaccumulate EDC from long-term toxic spills in soils and pastures: a resilience strategy might identify actions in order to preserve an adjusted farming activity in the polluted areas. For example, alternative sources of feed and fodder for animals might be identified; alternatively, the farming system might be converted to agricultural productions that are less liable to bioaccumulation. Research on decontamination systems for environmental media or food-producing organisms is worthwhile, e,g., bioremoval using microbes or plants. Decontamination appears to aim at “restoring” the system, but it needs adaptative measures and changes: risk assessment-based protection goals of the decontamination procesd, workable tools for monitoring and adjusting the ongoing process as well as (important for policy makers) resources devoted to achieve the determined goals.

It may be realistic to assume that as we are improving the sustainability of chemicals we use (and hopefully we will do it), we will also face new environmental “legacies”. Them toxicologists could have to challenge their skills in order to support the resilience of our living environment.

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