ATHENS, Ga.-- Much of the information on pollution world-wide is flawed at best and could be entirely wrong, according to a just-published study, led by a visiting scientist at the University of Georgia. The consequences of this oversight are beginning to threaten public health and the environment, according the paper's senior author, research microbiologist David Lewis.
The research specifically deals with chirality, a characteristic exhibited by chemicals with asymmetric molecules. This asymmetry causes molecules of the same chemical pollutant to exist as mirror images of one another. Since many of the building blocks of living organisms, including certain sugars, amino acids and proteins, are also chiral, the effects of chiral pollutants depends on how well the toxic portions of the pollutant fit together with molecules of living things.
"Our study emphasizes the fact that much of the historical environmental data collected on pollutants is unreliable because so many of the chemicals are chiral, and the data do not distinguish which mirror-images of certain chemicals were present and which were harmful," said Lewis. "The good news is that many environmental pollutants including some DDT derivatives, PCBs and plasticizers aren't as bad as previously thought. On the other hand, steps taken to protect the environment, such as using treated sewage sludge as a commercial fertilizer, will likely increase the persistence of the more toxic forms of some pesticides."
The study was published today in the British journal Nature.
Lewis's co-authors are A. Wayne Garrison of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency Ecosystems Research Division in Athens, along with Eric
Wommack of the National Research Council Fellowship Program and the University
of Georgia; Alton Whittemore of the Senior Environment Employment Program at
EPA; and Paul Steudler and Jerry Melillo of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine
Contact: David Lewis
University of Georgia