Hong Kong’s Education University wages war on BPAs, other hormone-disrupting chemicals as it joins China’s State Key Laboratories network

Researchers expect to advance their work to eradicate harmful chemicals from oceans after EdU enters state laboratory consortium that allows universities to share resources

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 7:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 7:00am

A research outfit at Hong Kong’s Education University is declaring war on what could be the next big global environmental and public health concern: chemicals that can wreak havoc with the hormones of animals and humans.

The unit, to be admitted to a national-level scientific research platform on Friday, will develop technologies to detect and remove endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) from the oceans. EDCs can cause genetic mutations in animals that may be passed on through generations even without direct exposure, according to Professor Rudolf Wu Shiu-sun, research chair of biological sciences.

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“EDCs are widespread,” Wu said. “Even small amounts can lead to a disruption of endocrine systems in animals and some humans, altering hormones and causing reproductive impairments, development malformations and affecting growth.”

Examples of EDCs include bisphenol A (BPA), an organic solvent found in plastic bottles and epoxy resins; estradiol and ethinylestradiol (E2 and EE2), which are used in birth control pills; nonylphenols, used in detergents, cleaners, emulsifier and lubricants; and PBDE and TDCPP, which are flame retardants.

The EDCs get into rivers, lakes and the sea via sewage, are consumed by the animals that live there and reintroduced into the food chain, ultimately ending up in humans.

Wu’s interdisciplinary research team is currently working to further quantify such chemicals in the local population and environment, assess the related environmental and public health risks and socio-economic implications.

They are expecting a boost in their research work after Education University is admitted to the State Key Laboratory in Marine Pollution consortium in Hong Kong, which is partially funded by the Hong Kong government and endorsed by the national Ministry of Science and Technology.

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China’s state laboratories pool top experts in the country to conduct “pioneering research, provide professional advice on important national issues, foster technological advancement, and undertake national mega research projects”. There are 16 approved labs in Hong Kong, including the one on marine pollution.

Set up by City University in 2009 after securing the ministry’s approval, the consortium draws on the collective expertise of 38 members from the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University, Polytechnic University, the University of Science and Technology, Baptist University, Xiamen University on the mainland, and now Education University.

Consortium members share expertise and can use each other’s laboratory facilities.

Their research focuses on identifying environmental threats caused by toxic contaminants to the marine ecosystems.

A new HK$15 million (US$1.9 million) laboratory has been set up at Education University that was formerly used for its associate degree programmes. It will be the first national-class science lab on the Tai Po campus, which has traditionally focused on training educators.

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Wu said the consortium would be able to leverage its access to local schools and their pupils, which are ideal groups for sampling.

“This [EDC] project will characterise a new class of chemical, which will be a major public health and environmental concern in the coming decades, and help us to take the necessary precautionary and preventive measures beforehand,” Wu said.