Scientists have identified 22 key research questions surrounding the risks associated with chemicals in the environment in Europe. Chemicals released into the environment by human activity are resulting in biodiversity loss; increased natural hazards; threats to food, water and energy security; negative impacts on human health and degradation of environmental quality.
Now, an international study published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry involving scientists from the University of York has identified the 22 most important research questions that need to be answered to fill the most pressing knowledge gaps over the next decade.
The list includes questions about which chemicals pose the greatest threat to European populations and ecosystems, where the hotspots of key contaminants are around the globe, and how we can develop methods to protect the environment. The research, which resulted from a recent ‘big questions’ exercise involving researchers from across Europe, aims to serve as a roadmap for policy makers, regulators, industry and funders and result in a more coordinated approach to studying and regulating chemicals in the environment.
One of the lead authors of the study, Dr Alistair Boxall from the University of York’s Environment Department, said: “Our research has highlighted international scientists’ research priorities and our key knowledge gaps when it comes to the risks and impacts of chemicals. The study aims to help focus scientific effort on the questions that really matter and inform decisions about the type of research needed to update policies and regulations. “This research is part of a much larger global horizon scanning exercise co-ordinated by the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Similar studies to ours are being performed in North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia and Australasia. Taken together these exercises should help to focus global research into the impacts of chemicals in the environment.”
A key suggestion in the report is that the harmful effects of chemicals on human health and the environment should be considered in combination with other stressors. Boxall added, “Considering chemicals in isolation can result in a simplistic assessment that doesn’t account for the complexity of the real world. For example, a fish won’t be exposed to a single chemical but to hundreds if not thousands of chemicals. Other pressures, such as temperature stress, will also be at play and it is likely that these components work together to adversely affect ecosystem health.”
The top 22 research questions arising from the European horizon‐scanning workshop:
- How can interactions among different stress factors operating at different levels of biological organization be accounted for in environmental risk assessment?
- How do we improve risk assessment of environmental stressors to be more predictive across increasing environmental complexity and spatiotemporal scales?
- How can we define, distinguish, and quantify the effects of multiple stressors on ecosystems?
- How can we develop mechanistic modeling to extrapolate adverse effects across levels of biological organization?
- How can we properly characterize the chemical use, emissions, fate, and exposure at different spatial and temporal scales?
- Which chemicals are the main drivers of mixture toxicity in the environment?
- What are the key ecological challenges arising from global megatrends?
- How can we develop, assess, and select the most effective mitigation measures for chemicals in the environment?
- How do sublethal effects alter individual fitness and propagate to the population and community levels?
- Biodiversity and ecosystem services: What are we trying to protect, where, when, why, and how?
- What approaches should be used to prioritize compounds for environmental risk assessment and management?
- How can monitoring data be used to determine whether current regulatory risk-assessment schemes are effective for emerging contaminants?
- How can we improve in silico methods for environmental fate and effects estimation?
- How can we integrate evolutionary and ecological knowledge to better determine vulnerability of populations and communities to stressors?
- How do we create high-throughput strategies for predicting environmentally relevant effects and processes?
- How can we better manage, use, and share data to develop more sustainable and safer products?
- Which interactions are not captured by currently accepted mixture toxicity models?
- How can we assess the environmental risk of emerging and future stressors?
- How can we integrate comparative risk assessment, life cycle analysis, and risk–benefit analysis to identify and design more sustainable alternatives?
- How can we improve the communication of risk to different stakeholders?
- How do we detect and characterize difficult-to-measure substances in the environment?
- Where are the hotspots of key contaminants around the globe?