Why is high persistence alone a major cause of concern?

By Ian T. Cousins, Carla A. Ng, Zhanyun Wang, and Martin Scheringer
Environ Sci Process Impacts
April 11, 2019
DOI: 10.1039/c8em00515j

Persistence is a hazard criterion for chemicals enshrined in chemical regulation worldwide. In this paper, we argue that the higher the persistence of a chemical, the greater the emphasis that it should be given in chemicals assessment and decision making. We provide case studies for three classes of highly persistent chemicals (chlorofluorocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) to exemplify problems unique to highly persistent chemicals, despite their otherwise diverse properties. Many well-known historical chemical pollution problems were the result of the release of highly persistent chemicals. Using evaluative modeling calculations, we demonstrate that if a chemical is highly persistent, its continuous release will lead to continuously increasing contamination irrespective of the chemical's physical-chemical properties. We argue that these increasing concentrations will result in increasing probabilities of the occurrence of known and unknown effects and that, once adverse effects are identified, it will take decades, centuries or even longer to reverse contamination and therefore effects. Based on our findings we propose that high persistence alone should be established as a sufficient basis for regulation of a chemical, which we term the "P-sufficient approach". We argue that regulation on high persistence alone is not over-precautionary given the historical and ongoing problems that persistent chemicals have caused. Regulation of highly persistent chemicals, for example by restriction of emissions, would not only be precautionary, but would serve to prevent poorly reversible future impacts.

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