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JPI Oceans Knowledge Hub releases new policy brief on contaminants of emerging concern

Under the auspices of JPI Oceans a group of experts recommend improvements of the methodological basis for marine chemical status assessment.

JPI Oceans Knowledge Hub releases new policy brief on contaminants of emerging concern

  • 25 June 2021

Under the auspices of JPI Oceans a group of experts recommend improvements of the methodological basis for marine chemical status assessment.

The key message of the Knowledge Hub is to develop and implement an integrated approach for assessing chemicals of emerging concern and their effects on the marine environment. In addition, the group of experts highlight that substantial additional knowledge of biological effects is needed to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES) of our oceans and coastal areas. In its policy brief the experts developed a set of recommendations for further work in improving and implementing the Integrated Approaches to Testing and Assessment (IATA) methodologies:

  1. Existing and new biological effects assessments should be used to help provide guidance on which chemicals of emerging concern (CECs) should be prioritized for monitoring in the marine environment. New methods need to be developed for evaluating specific effects of CECs in marine environments, particularly for marine sediments since this environmental compartment is poorly represented by current standardised bioassays. 
  2. Regulatory authorities should use data from alternative validated methods, assuming that the tests are performed and reported to a high level of quality. Standardisation of new methods should be encouraged and international validation should be promoted by competent authorities to ensure rapid acceptance within organisations such as ISO and OECD. 
  3. Methods for identification of non-target pollutants/CECs need to be improved and more stringent restrictions need to be applied by European regulatory authorities on CECs from entering the marine environment. 
  4. There is a need for transparency and commitment regarding monitoring data and assessment methodologies applied within different Member States. Monitoring data should be freely available and accessed through a central portal (e.g. ICES data centre, EMODnet, EEA etc.), facilitating data exchange and interoperability of databases. Threshold values, including Environmental Quality Standards (EQS) for CECs, need to be better harmonized across Member States and be relevant for the marine environment. 
  5. For CECs that show enhanced toxicity, an integrated toxicity regime with relevant chronic endpoints should be carried out on a variety of species, especially at crucial (potentially more sensitive) life stages, in order to minimise the risk of overlooking sensitive organisms. 
  6. Since CECs enter transitional waters, coastal regions and open oceans, both the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) are applicable for the evaluation of CEC levels and their effects in the marine environment. However, there is a need for better harmonization between the MSFD and WFD monitoring/ assessment frameworks, and Member States need to adopt a common policy on the interpretation of the directives to avoid conflicting assessments.
  7. An Integrated Approach to Testing and Assessment (IATA), combining both chemical contaminant and biological effect data, should become mandatory in marine monitoring programmes. An integrated approach will aid Member States evaluating whether Good Environmental Status is both achieved and maintained in the marine environment. To support Member States in understanding and applying integrated effects assessments in a tiered approach, an internationally accepted guidance document, adopted by different supranational agreements is required.

JPI Oceans established the Knowledge Hub on the integrated assessment of chemical contaminants and their effects on the marine environment in 2018. The Hub's scientists and policy makers produced a policy brief which focuses on improving the efficiency and implementation of integrated assessment methodology of effects of chemicals of emerging concern.

The topic of concern

It is estimated that almost 80% of the world effluents are being discharged directly without treatment into rivers and the sea. With continued use and discharge, chemicals that do not biodegrade easily, generally tend to increase in concentrations in the environment. Confounding this is when persistent chemicals also have properties which make them prone to bioaccumulate in the tissues of aquatic organisms. Some bioaccumulative chemicals can also biomagnify up the food chain which means that their concentration in top predators (such as marine mammals) can be significantly higher than those at the lower end of the food web. This biomagnification also presents an issue for public health, given that both capture fisheries and aquaculture-produced seafood often contain high levels of chemical contaminants. Some substances which are extremely persistent but are not very bioaccumulative, can be relatively soluble and therefore extremely mobile in the marine environment. With estimated half-lives of many thousands of years, they will be an environmental problem for many generations to come.

The term “chemicals of emerging concern” (CECs) is increasingly used to designate chemicals that might be a threat to the environment but have only recently been identified as a cause for concern. CECs cover a wide range of chemicals including plant protection products, pharmaceuticals, veterinary medicines, personal care products, antifoulants, warfare agents, biocides, hormones and hormone-like substances. Although some CECs may lead to acute aquatic toxicity (e.g. death), they can also cause significant ecological damage at low or very low environmental concentrations via sublethal effects (i.e., reproductive toxicity, reduced fecundity, developmental toxicity or endocrine disruption). Only marine monitoring, combining both chemistry and biological effects, can provide us with an early warning of the effects on aquatic organisms.

Suggested reference

JPI Oceans (2021) Policy Paper Knowledge Hub on the Integrated Assessment of Chemical Contaminants and their Effects on the Marine Environment, Brussels. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.11770.21449