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IU Research: Canary in a Coal Mine?

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015   

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Research on hormones used in animal agriculture underscores possible weaknesses in how hazardous substances are regulated in the United States, according to an Indiana environmental scientist.

Adam Ward, an assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, studied a growth hormone known as TBA used in beef production, along with colleagues in Iowa and Washington. Ward said the research indicates that the compound remains in the environment at higher levels and for longer periods than previously thought.

"This compound is something of a canary in a coal mine," he said, "demonstrating the kinds of gaps that may be prevalent through our regulatory system and highlighting why we need basic research to identify these gaps and help us close them in the future."

Ward said TBA and its byproducts can disrupt reproductive processes and behaviors in aquatic life. The environment can change compounds in potentially unexpected ways, he said.

"As we release a variety of different chemicals," he said, "the environment even has the potential to create new chemicals by breaking those down and recombining them into unique species."

Ward said the research isn't intended to place blame on any particular industry but to demonstrate how regulations could be shaped to improve future water quality.

"Everyone involved is following the letter of the law," he said. "My suggestion is that we need to revisit the law, and perhaps change those 'letters' to better reflect the risks that we're now discovering."

The current hazardous-substance regulations do their job to help ensure clean water, he said, but added that they focus on individual compounds. He said he thinks regulations need to address the complex chemical reactions that occur in the environment.

The study is online at nature.com.


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