Explore environmental careers.
Environmental chemists work to improve environmental health and safety using their knowledge of chemical properties of substances. They study how chemicals enter the environment and what effects they have and apply chemical theory to calculate the impact of human activity on the environment. Environmental chemists are involved in promoting environmental sustainability, conservation, and protection, as well as in formulating regulations to protect the environment. They often coordinate with disciplines such as geochemistry, oceanography, limnology, hydrogeology, and toxicology.
At a glanceImagine you are standing on the edge of a small stream trickling through your state-of-the-art laboratory. You are an environmental chemist working for a large manufacturing firm and this stream has been built to replicate a typical aquatic ecosystem. Unlike natural streams, this one is laced with monitoring equipment that allows you to measure and record its chemical, physical, and biological properties and how they change through the course of an experiment. This stream is one of several ways you research and test new products to determine their environmental impact before they are put on the market. As an environmental chemist, you test new products developed by the manufacturing company to ensure they do not pose a threat to the environment. Your latest project is testing a new liquid sealant that the company plans to apply to its consumer products to prevent premature wear and tear. Your lab has been given the task of determining if it is safe to use the liquid sealant based on how it affects and persists in the environment. Using sophisticated instruments such as chromatographs and the stream replicate, you will analyze and test the sealant in order to answer a number of environmental questions. For example, you will need to know what happens when this product is released into the environment: does it break down into other products or stay intact? You will test the effect this chemical has on waterways and determine what happens when it is discharged into the river, how it affects fish and aquatic plants, and how it affects wildlife that drink from the river. Is there a risk of bioaccumulation in the food chain? Is this chemical removed from drinking water when it goes through the treatment facility? What about wastewater treatment processes? You and your lab must find answers to all these questions before you sign off on the safety of this sealant and approve it for use on consumer products.
Job dutiesDuties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an environmental chemist:
- Collect and analyze air, soil, and water samples.
- Develop instrumental methods to analyze various environmental media.
- Analyze environmental data and prepare reports.
- Assist in the development of remediation programs.
- Provide suggestions and assistance to improve production processes.
- Develop new methods for analyzing chemicals and contaminants.
- Contribute to the development of safety and emergency response protocols and respond to emergency chemical spills.
- Follow government regulations and ensure compliance.
- Develop strategies to reduce sources of pollution and treat waste that cannot be eliminated.
- Conduct research and literature reviews.
- Design processes, systems, and equipment for quality assurance and quality control.
- Train and certify technical staff.
Work environmentEnvironmental chemists work in a variety of locations, including: In the lab:
- Preparing test solutions and processing samples
- Testing samples and conducting experiments
- Designing experimental protocols
- Calibrating instruments
- Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
- Researching literature and preparing reports and scientific papers
- Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and other scientists
- Researching new technology and advancements in chemistry, and consulting with other chemistry professionals
- Collecting samples for analysis
- Conducting and directing environmental assessment and site clean-up projects
- Performing on-site analyses for contaminants
Where to workThere are a number of places environmental chemists can find employment. They include:
- Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
- Colleges, universities, and research institutes
- Biotechnology firms
- Waste management firms
- Environmental consulting firms
- Agrochemical companies
- Forensic labs
- Firms in other industries, for example oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing
Education & requirementsIf you are a high school student considering a career as an environmental chemist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
- Environmental Science
- Chemical Engineering