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Toxins, human health, and the environment: 22 priority research questions

 There is no doubt that there is an urgent need for more research on how chemical contaminants affect human health and the environment. However, what should our scientific priorities be? A study recently published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry offers a response that could help guide research policies and governmental regulations in Europe.

Waste disposal centre for Paris, located in Ivry-sur-Seine. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe
By Emmanuelle Manck, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 09/21/2018
Published on 08/23/2018

In 2016, the official goals of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development came into force. They call for improving human health and prosperity and protecting the planet. During the agenda's development, the European Environment Agency underscored that, even if industrial pollution has declined, the impact of chemical contaminants on human health and the environment remains a key issue of concern. Indeed, we know little about the effects of these increasingly abundant and diverse chemicals, which are released into an environment that is already experiencing other natural or anthropogenic stressors (e.g., climate change, habitat degradation). This situation has given rise to a vast number of research questions, too many to tackle at once. Consequently, researchers have set out to establish an order of priority, which was the objective of a foresight study carried out by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). The results were published in June 2018.

Collaborative strategy development

Starting in 2014, the study team reached out to over 2,000 SETAC members and asked them to identify the most urgent and practical questions in ecotoxicology. Participants were required to use specific criteria in making their choices. The questions needed to focus on important gaps in knowledge and have factual answers. They also needed to be questions that could be addressed over the course of a standard-length, sufficiently funded research project and employing realistic methodologies. This deliberately restrictive process led to a list of 200 questions, which the study team whittled down to 90. During SETAC Europe's 2015 annual conference in Barcelona, a workshop was held that brought together 37 participants representing different domains in ecotoxicology and various academic disciplines, industrial sectors, and governmental groups. Using the list, they defined 22 priority research questions that were ranked by order of importance. According to Marie-Agnès Coutellec, a research scientist in evolutionary ecotoxicology at INRA Rennes, "The article describes the formulation and analysis of these questions. The goal is to inform research priorities in Europe and beyond as well as to provide guidance on the evaluation and management of chemical contaminants in the environment."

A multifaceted and coherent set of questions

The 22 priority research questions are general, interdependent, and complementary. They highlight points that it will be crucial to address in future research on chemical contaminants and other environmental stressors. The list includes precise questions, such as "What are the main chemicals found in toxic mixtures in the environment?” (ranked #6). It also includes questions related to risk evaluation and management in regulatory settings: "How can evaluations of environmental risk account for interactions between different stressors operating at different levels of biological organisation?” (ranked #1). Coutellec continues, "The reality is that organisms are being exposed to complex chemical cocktails, whose potential effects are not properly considered from a regulatory standpoint, especially given that such mixtures can come together at random and involve different chemical families. A mixture can be toxic even if the concentrations of its individual components are below effect thresholds. Answering these questions will require the development of models that examine exposure and effects and that extrapolate results across response levels. Such work is needed to estimate the longer-term impacts of chemical contaminants in more complex environments, such as when interactions are occurring with other environmental stressors."

Defining tomorrow's research questions to deal with future challenges

To better anticipate future challenges, these priority research questions seek to tackle novel concerns, such as how to evaluate the impact of emerging pollutants (e.g., nanomaterials and microplastics) and how to deal with growing environmental heterogeneity. There is also the issue of the long-term effects of chemical contaminants on populations. “Given the current environmental situation, we must improve our ability to estimate the longer-term vulnerability of populations to overall stress. For example, it is important to consider the potential epigenetic effects of contaminants", explains Coutellec, who was invited to participate because of her expertise on the transgenerational and evolutionary effects of chemical pollutants on natural populations.

The foresight study, and the research questions it contains, makes an informed and practical contribution to the pursuit of solutions to current research challenges in ecotoxicology. It can also guide foresight studies being carried out in other parts of the world. The European scientific community may thus play a major role in helping achieve UN sustainable development goals.

Contact(s)
Scientific contact(s):

Associated Division(s):
Forest, Grassland and Freshwater Ecology
Associated Centre(s):
Brittany-Normandy

Reference

Van den Brink, P. J. et al. 2018. Toward sustainable environmental quality: Priority research questions for Europe. Environ Toxicol Chem. 9999, 1-15. Doi:10.1002/etc.4205