Environmental chemists work to improve environmental health and safety using their knowledge of the 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.
Imagine 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 drinks 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.
Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an environmental chemist:
Environmental chemists work in a variety of locations, including:
In the lab:
In the office:
In the field:
There are a number of places environmental chemists can find employment. They include:
If you are a high school student considering a career as an environmental chemist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an environmental chemist is a university undergraduate degree, though the majority of positions are in research and require graduate studies. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an environmental chemist, the following programs are most applicable:
Certification is not mandatory for environmental chemists, but many practitioners choose to belong to professional associations such as their provincial association for professional chemists.
Benoît Desroches was always interested in chemical phenomena and always appreciated nature. Today he has the good fortune to be able to combine his interest in chemistry with a mission to protect the environment from toxic and dangerous chemicals. Benoît works in the laboratory at Stablex Canada, where his job is to verify the chemical composition of industrial residues brought into the lab.
When necessary, Benoît puts the residues through a treatment program that neutralizes them. Benoît also determines the appropriate disposal method for the chemical residues, which means he takes responsibility for making sure environmental and safety regulations are followed. Benoît studied for his bachelor of science in chemistry at the Université de Montréal. He got his current permanent position at Stablex after completing a summer work term there. What does he enjoy about his job? “The challenge of working safely in spite of the risks the chemicals present.”