Thirty years ago, I published an article, “Environmental Auditing; To Know or Not to Know” about the pros and cons of owner/operators understanding their compliance status. Ignorance of the law may not be the best legal defense, but it was believed to be some sort of defense and not knowing helped some site managers sleep better. A similar question is now being asked around the country concerning so-called Emerging Contaminants.
Emerging Contaminants are those compounds, particularly synthetic ones, for which there are no or no widely accepted actionable levels established in the pantheon of environmental regulations including the Clean Air Act (CAA), Clean Water Act (CWA), Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA is the most comprehensive listing approximately 85,000 compounds at this time but TSCA is focused on use in manufacturing and does not establish toxicological data, discharge limits or remedial action levels.
RCRA establishes what materials are hazardous when in a waste and the CAA and CWA establish discharge limits, both qualitatively and quantitatively, but for less than 100 compounds
If not having an action level was the sole criteria the number of “emerging contaminants” would be in the tens of thousands which I far beyond what most people using the term intend. The missing element is that emerging contaminants have been detected in the environment by virtue of a known analytical method, got to the environment essentially unintentionally and are known or strongly believed to be toxic, even if the concentration at which they are toxic is unknown.
A classic example of a historical contaminant is emergence, perhaps the prototype of the concept was Rachel Carson’s evaluation that DDT was destroying the eggs of bird species, including America’s symbol, the bald eagle. As naive as it seems today, before this disclosure the concept that the use of DDT could migrate through the ecosystem and cause harm simply wasn’t widely accepted.
This shows we have come a long way in 55 years but with the pace of chemical synthesis continuing to accelerate and adding issues such as the production and use of nano-particles and genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) how do we determine which compounds are the ones we need to control and how, when so many are, like pharmaceuticals, being managed by the population at large, do we keep them out of the environment? Do we want to know or not?
As in all things, one’s perspective has a strong effect on their answer. Some would say ‘If you don’t know what environmental harm a material can cause, don’t let it be marketed” is a simplistic answer. However, understanding harm and the concentrations that cause it, are not easily understood. It takes large amounts of time and money, not to mention creativity, to determine how a compound might get released and if it will do harm or “harm enough”. How many lifesaving medicines might still be waiting for release if perfect knowledge of their fate and transport in the environment was required?
TSCA requires at least a cursory analysis of release mechanisms and theoretical toxicity for a chemical to be considered a “new chemical” prior to being manufactured or imported into the USA. With time it is likely this process will become more rigorous, but TSCA provides no process for compounds that were in use before the promulgation of TSCA. CERCLA does this on a case by case basis. Polyfluorinated Organic Substances (PFOSs) and Polyflouroalkyl Substances (PFASs) are two such compounds getting a lot of attention today. Both were used in and released from scores of industrial applications, recently both have been shown to be harmful to humans in drinking water at concentrations that were not detectable until very recently and still only by a handful of laboratories nationwide.
So, do you or do you not want to know the environmental fate of the compounds you are using in your plant or in your home?
The list of items to consider is long and getting longer day by day. Awareness of what compounds are being managed seems is a simple place to start but the debate over the need to label GMO’s demonstrates how quickly even this gets controversial. Why list the presence of something that may not cause any problem? Once a compound is identified, how complete must the knowledge of its fate and transport in the environment be before the search for it begins? Does a demonstrated short-term benefit, even a lifesaving benefit, change how much needs to be known? And, in a period of growing lists of chemicals and shrinking government budgets, who is the judge of it all? We may or may not agree on the cause of climate change, but short-of turning off the grid, why should we stop discharging every bit of CO2 we can? Emerging contaminants, those whose toxicity has been or are being determined, are clearly worth keeping an eye on and qualitatively creating a conceptual site model concerning how they could be released and how they would migrate. But sampling? Perhaps if growing vegetables or selling irrigated produce but not running an industrial site. If the data is generated for a compound without a final action item, are you obligated to tell anyone? Does that person even want to know? Perhaps we need a new ethical position to emerge to answer any of the above.