Ecologists and other scientists studying biodiversity have identified five main drivers of the ongoing decline of the planet’s species — habitat destruction, overexploitation of natural resources, climate change, invasive alien species and chemical pollution.
While a lot of focus has been put on the first four reasons, not nearly as much attention has been given to chemical pollution, according to the recent ecology study Addressing chemical pollution in biodiversity research.
In a sense, addressing biodiversity loss without mentioning chemicals is a bit like discussing obesity without talking about sugar. There are no two ways around it. To solve the problem, the main drivers need to be dealt with. And for biodiversity loss, chemical pollution is in the top. In fact, it ranks as the third most important cause, more so than climate change.
“Addressing biodiversity loss without mentioning chemicals is like discussing obesity without talking about sugar”
Chemical pollution threatens 20% of the world’s red-listed species and for some of them it’s the main factor pushing them toward extinction. While agriculture, hunting and logging may be more pressing issues in tropical regions of the world, Europe is described in the study as a hotspot for pollution-induced loss of biodiversity.
This means that chemical pollution should be an absolute top priority for European policymakers if they’re interested in reversing the ongoing extinction of living species.
Chemical pollution can cause entire ecosystems to collapse
Research on the effects of chemical pollution on biodiversity has, so far, largely focused on overfertilization and pesticides. But the problem is much bigger than this. Since 1950, there has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals. 350,000 individual chemicals are now registered worldwide and each year tonnes of these man-made chemicals are pumped out in society.
And there is no slowing down. Production is projected to triple by 2050 compared to 2010, according to a study from last year.
What’s worse is that the majority of chemicals produced today are harmful. As much as 75% of the chemicals being produced in Europe are hazardous to people and/or planet.
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Chemical pollution can lead to entire ecosystems collapsing. But the negative impacts usually start off in subtle ways, such as developmental malformations, physiological alterations or behavioural changes in species.
Certain fish have, for example, changed their behaviour due to increased levels of pharmaceuticals and coppers in the environment, leading to higher predation risk.
Other living organisms need to use more resources in order to counteract the effects of chemical exposure. This leaves them with less energy for reproduction which, by itself, is severely affected by the release of hormone-disrupting chemicals in the environment.
Unlike the other main drivers of biodiversity loss, chemical pollution is much less visible and the negative impacts usually have a delayed onset. This may be one of the reasons why it has gone under the radar for a long time.
Scientists are starting to grasp the magnitude of the chemical pollution crisis and the actual impact it has on the planet’s ecosystems. Ecologists now warn that failing to account for the negative impacts of chemical pollution will significantly undermine measures to protect biodiversity and reverse the current loss.