UK water systems threatened by cosmetic chemicals

By Katie Bird

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Personal care Cosmetics Water Sewage treatment

Chemicals commonly used in personal care products remain in the
water system and may prove hazardous for both the environment and
human health, says a recent report.

The UK Royal Society of Chemistry's report calls for more research into the fate and effects of the chemicals found in personal care products, stating that current waste water treatment systems are not designed to remove such pollutants. In addition, the report focuses on nanotechnology as an area of concern, similarly highlighting the lack of knowledge regarding the effects of nanomaterials once they reach the water system. ​Many of the 100, 000 man made chemicals that are in everyday use are disposed into the sewage system, says the report; a sewage system that is not designed to treat them. "It is likely, even probably definite that very many chemicals and their intermediary degradation products, are entering most rivers continuously"​ write the authors. Endocrine disruptors - chemicals that may mimic or otherwise modify the workings of the body's hormones - come under particular scrutiny in the report, with the authors highlighting natural estrogens and estrogens from the contraceptive pill that are thought to have led to 'feminised' wildlife in aquatic ecosystems. The report notes that parabens, found as preservatives in many cosmetics and personal care products, 'display weak estrogenic activity in several assays',​ even though the chemicals themselves have very low levels of acute toxicity. Furthermore, triclosan - often used as an anti-microbial ingredient in anti-bacterial handsoaps, deodorants and acne formulations - will be directly discharged into the sewage system and may not be removed in the treatment process, according to the report. Nanomaterials also receive particular attention, and the report highlights the lack of current legislation to control its use. "The fate and transport of nanomaterials in the environment is of growing concern and there isn't any legislation at the moment to control its production"​ say the authors, adding that our understanding of the behaviour of nanoparticles is 'non-existent'. Nanoscale particles are increasingly used in sunscreen products and other cosmetics formulations such as anti-ageing products, and opinion appears to remain divided as to their safety for this use. "An understanding of the inputs, fate and subsequent exposure of aquatic systems to chemical contaminants is essential in determining and controlling the risks of contaminants to environmental and human health"​ say the authors. For this reason the report calls for a focus on previously ignored and emerging contaminants such as those found in personal care products and nanomaterials. The report comes at a time when consumer concern over synthetic chemicals is particularly high. The industry has been dogged by a number of recent high profile cases concerning the safety​ of synthetic chemical ingredients. Most recently the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics raised the alarm over lead in lipstick and prompted several senators including former presidential candidate John Kerry to call for a full FDA investigation into the issue.

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