file under: Chemicals, Environment, Food and Beverage, Industrial, Metals and Mining, Oil and Gas, Power, Water

Microconstituents—Staying Ahead of the Game

According to the World Health Organization and the Water Environment Federation (WEF), there are 2.5 million chemical compounds in existence. Not surprisingly, many of these are found in air, water, soil, and living tissue. While this is not a recent discovery, new and refined analytical testing procedures—capable of measuring in nanograms and parts per quadrillion—are enabling the detection of "microconstituents" in the environment, animals, and humans. Understanding the presence and implications of microconstituents is important not only for managing health risks and liability, but also for protecting brand reputation.

Do you really know what is in your industrial wastewater? Understanding microconstituents can help you stay ahead of the treatment game. 

The Regulatory Environment

A toxics release inventory cited the environmental release of more than 4.24 billion pounds of more than 650 chemicals by business and industry. In the past, regulatory focus has been on "well-known" toxic pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); dioxins; heavy metals; and organic solvents, including trichloroethene. Now, agencies are focusing on "emerging chemicals," which include 1,4-dioxane, perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), perchlorate, and methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). Certain emerging substances, such as N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) and 1,2,3-trichloropropane (TCP), have action levels in the parts per trillion (e.g., nanograms per liter in water), necessitating even lower detection limits by analytical laboratories.

Even though many compounds are known to be harmful, it is important to note that a microconstituent's presence does not necessarily mean it has a detrimental or life-threatening effect. Additionally, advanced treatment processes may significantly reduce the levels of many such substances. To date, regulatory authorities are evaluating if further reductions should be required. However, because public perception often characterizes a compound's presence in water or the environment as a problem, the scientific community is being pressured to provide more information. Some states and agencies are currently in a fact-finding mode, partnering with academia to study the source, transport, and disposition of many substances, and to evaluate their short- and long-term effects.

Proactive Steps

With research ongoing and regulations yet to be promulgated, it is prudent and responsible for companies to take proactive steps regarding compounds they use:

  • Identify and monitor microconstituents used in production or sanitation processes, such as additives and disinfectants. If agencies determine that existing treatment processes fail to remove harmful microconstituents, they may scrutinize the generator, especially if the chemicals are released into a water body resulting in potential exposure to humans or ecological receptors.
  • Evaluate current treatment technologies and disposal practices, and determine if current processes effectively remove or reduce chemical concentrations. Operators should also become familiar with alternative substances and product formulations that are safer, such as organic-based cleaners.
  • Monitor the science related to these and other adverse compounds by following university-funded research. Becoming aware of the evolving microconstituents landscape will help operators stay ahead of any future regulations or requirements.
  • From a corporate responsibility perspective, consider educating customers about the use of any compounds in production processes and inform consumers so they are aware of ongoing microconstituent research.

Studying the effects of microconstituents in the environment is an emerging science. However, companies have the advantage of best understanding where and how chemicals are used in their day-to-day operations. They should also take action by implementing an environmentally safe approach to chemical usage and minimizing or eliminating release of these compounds into the environment. Doing so now will place operators ahead of the game when new microconstituent rules and regulations are implemented.

Be Informed

For more information, visit the EPA website for pharmaceuticals and personal care products and the WEF website for microconstituents. You should also check your local government’s website for more localized information on this topic.

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