Society relies on a vast range of chemicals for industrial, agricultural and domestic uses, and new compounds are continuously being developed. However, following their use, chemicals can be released into the environment, where they can contaminate soil and water resources. Research at Warwick has identified new approaches to predict chemical behaviour in the environment, which are being used by the chemical industry to derive more reliable and realistic estimates of chemical fate. This allows new chemicals with potential to persist in the environment to be identified at an early stage of development, before they reach commercial use.
The global value of the chemical industry exceeds £2.5trillion, and chemicals are vital to society in products such as medicines, agricultural pesticides, personal care products, and as industrial materials. Well over a hundred thousand chemicals are in use in Europe, and new substances are being continuously developed. However, chemicals are released into the environment either intentionally, such as in agricultural systems, or unintentionally, following use of commercial products.
When chemicals reach the environment, they can have a range of deleterious impacts, including contamination of drinking water, harm to wildlife, and bioaccumulation in food webs. In order to prevent release of harmful chemicals to the environment, industry uses a variety of regulatory tests to characterise the environmental behaviour and impacts of chemicals, prior to their approval for use. However such tests can be simplistic and fail to take account of environmental complexity, so that realistic prediction of chemical behaviour in the environment is problematic.
At Warwick we have been working with government agencies and several large multinational companies to provide fundamental new understanding of the factors which control persistence of chemicals in the environment, so that the tests they use to screen new chemicals can be made more realistic, thereby avoiding development of environmentally harmful chemicals, and protecting the environment.
We have identified new pathways by which chemicals are degraded in soil and water systems, showing for the first time the importance of phototrophic bacteria and algae (organisms which use light to derive energy) to chemical degradation.
We have also shown that these communities can alter the ways in which chemicals move between environmental compartments, such as the surface and subsurface of river sediment and soil.
The new processes we have characterised are being used to improve the accuracy and realism of chemical fate testing procedures by commercial collaborators.
In the long term we aim to build on this work to develop more robust and realistic regulatory test protocols which incorporate the new processes we have identified, for use by the wider chemical industry.
Professor Gary Bending