Must learn more about pollutants

This was one of the priority topics on the agenda during a major conference on environmentally hazardous substances hosted recently by the Research Council of Norway and the Norwegian Climate and Pollution Agency. Erik Solheim, Minister of the Environment and International Development, believes that Norway’s knowledge communities should intensify their efforts to document new threats from pollutants.

Cocktail effects, nano-products and hormone-mimicking compounds

Erik Solheim. Photo: John Petter Reinertsen Erik Solheim (Photo: John Petter Reinertsen) “Environmentally hazardous substances pose a challenge at the global level, and international regulations must be put in place,” said Mr Solheim. “Norway is looking to take the lead and propose more stringent regulation of environmentally hazardous substances. But in order to gain support in the EU and other important fora, it is essential that our suggestions are backed up by thorough scientific documentation.”

Mr Solheim pointed to three research areas in need of particular focus, encouraging the Norwegian research community to redouble its efforts.

“We need to learn more about cocktail effects in order to better understand the interactions between various pollutants. We also need to improve our understanding of the environmental impacts of nano-products as well as of hormone-mimicking compounds.”

Sweeping cuts in Norwegian emissions

Ellen Hambro. Photo: John Petter Reinertsen Ellen Hambro (Photo: John Petter Reinertsen) “From 1995 to 2009, Norway managed to reduce its emissions and discharges by more than 50 per cent for nearly all high-priority hazardous substances,” stated Ellen Hambro, Director General of the Norwegian Climate and Pollution Agency. “For some of these, the reduction has been even greater.”

Ms Hambro stressed the need for prevention. “We know that it costs far more to try and clean up an environmental problem than to prevent the pollutants from ever reaching the environment in the first place. But this requires rapid knowledge production; we have to start early on identifying the health and environmental impacts of new substances. Only then can we avert the problem before it develops.”

Watching the signs in the Arctic

Arvid Hallén. Photo: John Petter Reinertsen Arvid Hallén (Photo: John Petter Reinertsen) Even though Norway’s emissions of many prioritised pollutants are declining, levels of hazardous substances in Norwegian ecosystems are not necessarily diminishing. Scientists are observing higher concentrations of mercury, for instance, in many animals high in the Arctic food chain. Significantly higher mercury levels have also been found in perch in Norway’s lakes compared to 20 years ago – despite lower discharges inland.

“We know that substances such as mercury are transported to the Arctic by ocean currents and weather,” said Arvid Hallén, Director General of the Research Council, at the conference. “Developments in the Arctic serve as an indicator of global dispersal of mercury. So Norwegian research activities on environmentally hazardous substances will give priority to closely monitoring what is taking place in the Arctic.”

Focus on environmental technology

Descriptive research is not enough. Researchers must also work on developing environmental technology – which is one of the five priority thematic areas in the Research Council’s input to the national research budget for 2013. Results from R&D activities will be vital in preventing the use and dispersal of environmentally hazardous substances as well as in cleaning up polluted areas.

Photo: Digital Vision (Photo: Digital Vision)

Mr Hallén indicated that the issue of environmentally hazardous substances should also be given focus in the forthcoming government white paper on research and invited the Climate and Pollution Agency and the Ministry of the Environment to cooperate with the Research Council to achieve this.

Topic under many programmes

Research Council funding for research activities relating to environmentally hazardous substances currently lies at roughly NOK 150 million annually, distributed across a number of schemes and programmes.

The Research Council programmes most closely involved in these activities are:

  • Norwegian Environmental Research Towards 2015 (MILJO2015)
  • The Oceans and Coastal Areas (HAVKYST)
  • Environmental Exposures and Health Outcomes (2011-2015)
  • Climate Change and its Impacts in Norway (NORKLIMA)
  • User-driven Research-based Innovation (BIA)
  • Polar Research
  • Nanotechnology, Nanoscience, Microtechnology and Advanced Materials (NANO2021)

Photo: Shutterstock (Photo: Shutterstock) Research activities in this field also receive support under the Research Council's FRIPRO funding scheme for independent projects, the scheme for funding of infrastructure, and as part of the basic financing allocated to research institutes.

The environmental impact of nano-products was given a high profile at the recent conference. The portfolio of the Research Council’s new NANO2021 programme (the continuation of the NANOMAT programme, concluded in 2011) will comprise a higher proportion of research projects on health, environment and safety than its predecessor.

Integrated health care approach

“Within the health care system, we should look at the impact of environmentally hazardous substances in the context of, and as an integral part of, other health care efforts,” said Professor Jon Øyvind Odland of the University of Tromsø’s Department of Community Medicine. “It may, for example, be critical to reduce the consumption of foods with high levels of environmentally hazardous substances. But we have also seen that advising people to avoid eating traditional foods such as seal meat or whale meat has led indigenous population groups to adopt unhealthy diets of fast food and convenience foods. If advice and strategies are not tailored to local conditions, they can do more harm than good.”

Inhabitants of Arctic regions are particularly vulnerable to persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals such as mercury, PCBs, DDE and brominated flame retardants – even though these are discharged from densely populated areas much farther south. Several studies indicate that elevated levels of such substances in humans pose a clear health hazard, cautioned Professor Odland, who pointed out that various environmentally hazardous substances have been associated with impaired brain development, a weakened immune system, reduced reproductive health and increased risk of cancer. 

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