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Nonhlanhla Kelebaila and Jennifer Molwantwa 

WRC at the forefront of emerging contaminants research 

Despite considerable progress in water research undertaken over the past decade, there is increasing concern over the presence of the so called “emerging contaminants” (ECs) in the environment as well as their potential human health risks. The Water Research Commission (WRC) has realised that more needs to be done in order to understand, assess and manage the risks associated with emerging contaminants in the environment, to advance the science, as well as to communicate with the authorities and the public.

The WRC has over the years played a critical role in co-ordinating and funding water research in South Africa. The WRC research programme on ECs was formally launched in a workshop held in Pretoria in 1999, and a strategic research plan was consequently developed and published by the WRC in 2005. Since then, there have been a number of related studies and 2015 was an opportune time to review the ten years’ worth of research done.  

The WRC together with stakeholders in the water sector, including water professionals, government representatives, water services institution personnel, consumers, public health practitioners, researchers, the medical community, and communication experts, met on the 22 July 2015 in Centurion in order to discuss the issue at length and share new research developments, as well as formulate a research strategy on how to tackle the problem in hand in order to improve our understanding on the full potential human and ecosystem health effects of these contaminants in our water resources.

Mr Dhesigen Naidoo WRC CEO, emphasised the importance of engaging in such talks a as transformation of the current water treatment system through technology is fast growing. According to Professor Henk Bouwman of the North West University, more and more emerging contaminants of concern are being detected at various concentrations in the environment, what is important is to have a clear understanding of the impact of such chemicals and their mixtures on human health as well as ecosystem health in general.

Dr Audrey Levine, a Fulbright Fellow and Program Director at National Research Council, United States of America, offered valuable insights on global perspectives on emerging contaminant management issues. In particular, she pointed out the need for new or hybrid approaches for managing contaminants, to assist in the screening of contaminants and prioritizing research.  In addition, more research is needed to look into ways of developing new treatment process configurations or better still, improving on current processes to target the removal of emerging contaminants to certain acceptable limits before water is either discharged into the environment or distributed for drinking purposes.

Ms Noluzuko Gwayi, a Senior Policy Advisor at the Department of Environmental Affairs, stressed on the importance of development of policy with regards to the establishment of monitoring programs; the addition of contaminants to a priority list of contaminants that requires regulation, and establishment of a national committee to help identify information gaps that may help define research needs for South Africa and international partners to better understand these issues.

All stakeholders were in agreement that, more needs to be done on this issue, particularly, towards hazardous waste collections and more should be done to raise awareness amongst consumers on the proper disposal of pharmaceutical products, in order to safeguard against the entry of these contaminants into our water systems.

In addition, there is need for a change in consumer chemical consumption behaviours in order to decrease our exposure to emerging contaminants. For example, consumers should opt for safer alternatives of home and personal care products. Apart from changes in consumer behaviours, there needs to be drastic policy reforms, to ensure that human and environmental health aspects are taken into consideration (by conducting comprehensive health risk assessments) for any chemical products before its manufacture and introduction into the marketplace. Introduction of appropriate policies can also result in the correct labelling of products, such that the consumer is aware of the potential health effects of the product, and can in fact choose to use or not to use that product based on its chemical content.

For more information please contact Dr Nonhlanhla Kalebaila, Research Manager for Water Use and Waste Management email : nonhlanhlak@wrc.org.za .




Ms Noluzuko Gwayi, a Senior Policy Advisor at the Department of Environmental Affairs
Dr Audrey Levine, a Fulbright Fellow and Program Director at National Research Council, United States of America
Dr Nonhlanhla Kalebaila, Research Manager for Water Use and Waste Management
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