Blog: What would Rachel Carson say today? A perspective on the Safeguarding Spring Symposium

16 May 2012
Prof. Sir Tom Blundell chairing the Safeguarding Spring Symposium.

By Sue Jobling and Sibylle Ermler

We've been busy over at the Institute recently helping to produce the European Environment Agency's report on “The impacts of endocrine disrupters on wildlife, people and their environments – The Weybridge+15 (1996–2011) report”. Prof. Sue Jobling edited the report and Profs. Andreas Kortenkamp and John Sumpter made contributions to different sections.

It was a great effort from all concerned so it was nice to launch the report at the "Safeguarding Spring symposium" here at Brunel University on May the 10th 2012.

The symposium was attended by 85 people from industry, academia, and government from across Europe. It was chaired by the esteemed Sir Tom Blundell (ex chair of the Royal Commission on Pollution and Chair of the BBSRC).

Safeguarding Spring audience

Tom gave an excellent introduction to the topic of the symposium, taken from the title of a well-known book "Silent Spring" written five decades ago by Rachel Carson in 1962. Carson suggested that uncontrolled and unexamined pesticide use was harming and even killing not only animals and birds, but also humans. Its title was meant to evoke a spring season in which no bird songs could be heard, because they had all vanished as a result of pesticide abuse.

The impact of Rachel's thesis eventually led to the formation of a new branch of government in the USA aimed at environmental protection, and spurred a global treaty, the Stockholm Convention (2001), that resulted in the phase-out and elimination of twelve persistent organic pollutants. More importantly, it forced new scientific questions to be asked about links between exposures to chemicals in everyday use and human and wildlife health.

Now 50 years later, although the environment is less burdened with toxic chemicals that might kill, sub-lethal effects of chemicals on the ability of humans and animals to develop normally, grow and reproduce have come to the fore. This is part of a scientific revolution catalysed by Rachel Carson’s book and arising from burgeoning scientific discoveries which established that many chemicals in everyday use can interfere with the hormonal messaging systems that direct the biological development of plants and animals, causing disruption of growth, metabolism, development and reproduction - endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). The symposium speakers highlighted major research advances that have occurred over the past decade or so and debate ensued regarding the enormous gap between what science now tells us about the links between contamination and health, and the approaches used to safeguard public health and wildlife:

- Professor John Sumpter presented an overview of the past, present and future of EDC research on wildlife, particularly the effects of human pharmaceuticals, such as contraceptive pill hormones on fish living in rivers contaminated by wastewaters containing these chemicals. He highlighted the past achievements leading to the Queens Anniversary Prize for the Institute of the Environment, the current state of research and its impact on environmental policy and future challenges scientists and regulators are facing.

- Professor Terry Collins illustrated the sustainability challenges in the production and use of chemicals and the importance of a reduction of the toxicity and persistence of chemical compounds released into the environment. He described his work in green chemistry on a new class of catalysts and their potential in combating existing pollution. He is currently collaborating with Professor Susan Jobling and her team on using these catalysts in wastewater treatment as a solution to endocrine disrupting pollution of UK rivers and streams with the aim of providing a cost-effective solution for the water industry.

- Professor Niels E. Skaakabaek illustrated the trends in male reproductive health in Europe, including a rise in testicular cancer, undescended testicles, lower sperm counts and lower fertility over the last several decades, which may be caused by exposure to EDCs in the womb.

- Professor Ana Soto reported that male fertility is only one aspect of the problem of endocrine disruptions and summarised the last 15 years of research showing that EDCs may also account for a rise in breast and other cancers as well as obesity, diabetes and neurodevelopment disorders. Again the focus was on the effects of exposure of babies to chemicals in the womb

- Professor Andreas Kortenkamp demonstrated the problem of exposure to mixtures of EDCs and the issues around low dose effects, and suggested a practical approach for cumulative risk assessment of chemicals. He concluded by introducing the Weybridge +15 report, providing its main conclusions and highlighting knowledge gaps.

During the discussion the panel agreed that better communication between academic scientists, regulators and industry is essential to improve the risk assessment and regulation of chemicals, and to safeguard Spring for both, public health and wildlife. Moreover, the education and involvement of the public is essential.

So, what would Rachel Carson think about our progress on the legislation of chemicals in the environment? To be honest, we think she'd be conflicted: partly pleased that her work had an impact but also dismayed at the scale of the problem that remains. Of course, Carson (1907-1964) didn't live to see the impact of her book but maybe she also didn't appreciate that what she uncovered was just the tip of the iceberg. The problem of chemicals in the environment remains and the resistance to change is still evident. We pride ourselves here at the Institute for the Environment in researching difficult questions that impact our society and environment on different levels – Safeguarding Spring proved that people want to hear our results.

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Page last updated: Sunday 03 June 2012