Whether it is DDT, perchlorate, perfluoroalkyl substances, or pharmaceuticals, the process through which a contaminant emerges follows a predictable pattern. First, researchers stumble upon a previously unknown contaminant or observe effects on the health of humans or wildlife that they cannot readily explain. Driven by curiosity and a desire to protect the environment, the researchers, operating on a shoestring budget, publish a paper documenting their initial findings. The attention that their research receives results in a wave of papers on detection, occurrence and toxicology of a now-emerging contaminant.
About a decade after the first wave of papers appears the emerging contaminant reaches a crossroads. If the research does not seem to justify action, the funding tide ebbs and the community moves onto other issues. But if there is sufficient ground for concern, a second wave of research starts, with an expansion into policy-relevant questions related to establishing regulatory standards, implementing treatment technologies, and reformulating products to minimize future releases.
Microplastics are our newest emerging contaminant. Although scientists have expressed concerns about the impacts of plastic pollution for over four decades, microplastics did not become emerging contaminants until 2007. The issue gained momentum about five years later, when researchers reported the presence of microbeads from consumer products in wastewater effluent-receiving waters. Facing negative publicity for a nonessential ingredient, leading manufacturers voluntarily eliminated microbeads and accepted the decision to ban them in the United States in 2015. Now that we are into the second wave of research that will determine whether or not the remaining sources of microplastics will be controlled, it is worth considering lessons learned from other emerging contaminants.
The first lesson is that occurrence data and laboratory toxicology studies alone are not enough to bring about action when the effects being studied do not involve humans. When it comes to wildlife, adverse effects must be documented in the field. In the case of DDT, the direct link between tissue levels and reproductive failure of bald eagles and brown pelicans turned the tide on a product that was considered essential to farmers. In contrast, the widespread occurrence of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and perfluoroalkyl substances in polar bears garnered plenty of media attention, but without field evidence of adverse effects, regulatory actions were hard to justify. For microplastics, the public might not be as motivated if the adverse effects are limited to decreased feeding by microscopic creatures living near the bottom of the food web. Furthermore, waterways with the highest concentrations of microplastics are also subject to other pollutant stresses that could make it difficult to attribute compromised wildlife health to microplastics. To prove adverse effects of microplastics under realistic conditions, dosing of entire lakes, using methods similar than those used to document the effects of ethinyl estradiol on fish populations, might be needed. Because the addition of microplastics to pristine ocean waters would be impractical, such large-scale manipulations would require researchers to devise clever ways of removing microplastics from already contaminated marine waters.
Turning our attention to people, the second lesson is that contaminants are more likely to emerge if there is a reasonable possibility that their use is endangering human health. For example, when PBDEs were reported in human serum and breast milk, regulators took action before health effects were documented. As long as we consider human health as our top environmental priority, occurrence data and toxicology studies suggesting that contaminant concentrations are approaching a level of concern can bring about action. In the case of microplastics, human health risks have been posited, but the complexities associated with microplastic uptake as well as the simultaneous exposure of people to a myriad of other particles are going to challenge researchers seeking to assess the health risks of microplastics. Furthermore, one of the human health concerns that is frequently discussed—namely that microplastics expose people to lipophilic chemicals—is likely to be seen as an issue that is best handled by controlling the lipophilic chemicals rather than the media that increase their uptake.
The third lesson is that the likelihood that society will control an emerging contaminant is inversely proportional to the cost of solving the problem as well as the degree to which blame can be affixed on a small number of companies. The first part of this lesson is intuitive: expensive regulatory action requires a high threshold of evidence. Replacing microbeads in facial scrubs is a lot easier than rethinking the thousands of uses of plastics in the economy. The second part is less obvious but just as relevant: product bans and requirements to clean up contamination are more likely when only a few companies manufacture and use the chemical. For example, Monsanto, Westinghouse, and General Electric spent over $10 billion cleaning up PCB-contaminated sites. In contrast, the hundreds of companies that mine and use copper in construction materials, electronics and brake pads have not funded upgrades to sewage treatment plants or the installation of stormwater treatment systems in places where waterways are contaminated with the metal.
If it turns out that a specific use of plastic accounts for a disproportionate share of the microplastics detected in the environment, action is more likely. As long as researchers focus on a suite of sources that would be nearly impossible to eliminate, control options implemented in the near term are likely to be restricted to relatively inexpensive practices (e.g., litter control campaigns, marketing of biodegradable plastics to eco-friendly consumers) that might ultimately have little impact. Although we are all responsible for microplastics in the environment, getting the entire world to rethink the way it uses synthetic polymers would be a long, arduous process requiring compelling evidence of severe environmental risks.
The science and engineering of microplastics will be different from that of the chemical contaminants that preceded them. Nevertheless, we should learn our emerging contaminant history lessons. As we embark on our second decade of microplastics research, we need to set our sights on how best to provide society with the information needed to decide what to do about our newest emerging contaminant.
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