Carbon dioxide may get all the attention in environmental research, but the effects of pesticides and pharmaceuticals remain relatively unexplored, according to new Duke research

A recent study—led by Emily Bernhardt, associate professor of biogeochemistry at Duke—emphasized that despite the rapid increase in the release of synthetic chemicals into the environment, ecologists and researchers have given little attention to assessing how this pollution might impact ecosystems.

When compared to carbon dioxide emissions and pollution from nitrogen fertilizers, the quantity, variety and toxicity of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other synthetically-produced chemicals has outpaced other drivers of global climate change. Analysis of ecological publications and funding showed that less than 2 percent of journal content and science funding has been focused on investigating synthetic agents and their ecological impacts.

Those potent chemicals that have been banned from usage in the U.S because of potential harm to human health and the environment, like pesticides, are still commonly used elsewhere, so the long-term ecological effects are of concern to study.

“The rate of increase of chemicals infiltrating the environment has increased dramatically and continues to increase. Most of these chemicals are entering ecosystems in complex mixtures that we have little understanding of,” said Richard Di Giulio, Sally Kleberg professor of environmental toxicology at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Di Giulio added that a decrease in funding and attention to this area of study occurred primarily because Congress had cut funding for the EPA.

“A number of us have been concerned for a long time over the declining funding, particularly through the EPA, for the environmental impacts of chemicals, which is one of the main things they do. But the funding for that has gone down and down,” Di Giulio said. “Without assigning any blame to the agency, it’s not a healthy situation for the environment." 

On top of that, the research funding that is available through the EPA is disproportionately funneled toward human health, as opposed to studying the impacts of synthetic chemicals and toxins on ecosystems, Di Giulio said. He added that this approach may be misguided, as another government agency—the National Institute of Environmental Health Science—is charged with the human health side of environmental research.

Warren Warren, professor in chemistry, physics, radiology and biomedical engineering, wrote in an email that the impacts—instead of the growth in usage—of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and agents of climate change need to be analyzed further.