Chemical Pollution Threatens Biodiversity




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Researchers at TU Wien and RWTH Aachen University are calling for more environmental pollutants to be taken into account in species protection.


Pollution of the environment with chemicals threatens biodiversity. However, pollution is a highly complex process and has so far been only insufficiently understood by policy-makers – this is what an international research team led by Professor Gabriel Sigmund from the University of Vienna, Professor Andreas Schäffer from the RWTH Chair of Environmental Biology and Chemodynamics, and Ksenia Groh from the Eawag Water Research Institute (Dübendorf, Switzerland), argues in an article published in the current issue of the academic journal Science. They call on decision-makers and researchers to consider more chemicals in their environmental activities than previously. Their article is published shortly before the start of international negotiations on a new biodiversity agreement, the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The negotiations are scheduled to take place from June 21 in Nairobi, Kenya.

“Although the draft agreement mentions chemical pollution, it only takes into account nutrients, pesticides, and plastic waste and is thus insufficient,” explains environmental scientist Gabriel Sigmund. “Many highly problematic chemicals that pollute the environment and thus threaten the diversity of animal and plant species are simply left out of the picture,” adds ecotoxicologist Ksenia Groh. This means that the agreement falls short of addressing the immense diversity of man-made chemicals. So far, the draft agreement has not taken into account critical pollutants such as toxic metals, industrial chemicals, chemicals from consumer products, pharmaceuticals, and the often unknown transformation products of these chemicals.

The chemical pollutants in the environment affect organisms both directly and indirectly and can thus contribute to the decline or even extinction of sensitive species. For example, populations of orca whales off the coasts of Canada, Brazil, Japan, and Gibraltar are threatened because they have high concentrations of industrial chemicals in their bodies. In addition, if plants and animals adapt to chemical exposure, their genetic diversity may decrease. "If the genetic diversity of living beings decreases, their resilience to stressors such as global warming and other aspects of global change also decreases," explains Groh. “Such indirect effects of chemical pollution and myriad other interactions with other substances that threaten biodiversity and ecosystems are ignored when attention is limited to nutrients, pesticides, and plastics,” adds Sigmund, who investigates environmental pollutants at the University of Vienna's Center for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science.

The scientists argue that joint efforts by interdisciplinary research teams are required to grasp the above mentioned complex interactions. “However, we believe that neither the scientific community nor the funding bodies have yet recognized how explosive the issue is and how necessary additional research is,” Sigmund says. “But what is known so far already justifies extending the measures under the Biodiversity Convention to a broader range of chemical pollutants, he emphasizes. The so-called post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework is a new strategic plan to guide international policy decisions on biodiversity through 2030. It is being negotiated in the context of the multilateral agreement on biological diversity – the Convention on Biological Diversity. Policy-makers will meet June 21 to 26 for the next round of negotiations in Nairobi.


“Broaden chemicals scope in biodiversity targets”. G. Sigmund, M. Ågerstrand, T. Brodin, M.L. Diamond, W.R. Erdelen, D.C. Evers, A. Lai, M.C. Rillig, A. Schaeffer, A. Soehl, J.P. M. Torres, Z. Wang, K.J. Groh, Science (2022), DOI: