Environmental Chemist

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Environmental Chemist


Waste, consumption and pollution are a few of the rapidly growing environmental problems facing our society. Yet what happens to all of our chemical waste, such as an industrial cleaner after you pour it into the sink? What about shampoo and conditioner once you rinse it out of your hair? When you see black smoke pouring out of the chimney at an industrial complex, what impact is it having on the atmosphere? These are the types of questions studied routinely by environmental chemists. The fate and effects of chemicals on the environment are matters of increasing concern to those specializing in the management of our environment.

Environmental chemistry is a general term. In fact, most chemists in the field would probably describe themselves more specifically by the work they do. This may be collecting and analyzing samples, developing remediation programs, changing production processes to ones that yield a more environmentally friendly product, advising on safety and emergency response, or dealing with government regulations and compliance issues.

Accordingly, many environmental chemists conduct research, design systems, processes and equipment for air, water and soil quality control, solid waste disposal, and the remediation of contaminated soil, air and water. They develop strategies to reduce pollution at the source and treat wastes that cannot be eliminated. Applying chemistry theories, they calculate the impact of human activity in relation to the environment and seek to design methods of environmental sustainability, conservation and protective efforts and reparations if necessary.

Environmental chemists investigate the sources, fate, control and effects of chemicals in the natural and engineered environment. They are responsible for environmental protection and industry regulations. Environmental chemists also coordinate with other disciplines and sub-disciplines such as geochemistry, limnology, oceanography, toxicology, hydrogeology, health and safety and environmental engineering. Some of their duties may include responding to environmental emergencies, reviewing permit applications, monitoring stream contamination, assessing pollution potential, providing technical advice regarding hazardous waste disposal and treatment methods, and evaluating risk potential of wastes.

Environmental chemists try to clean up yesterday's waste and prevent tomorrow's pollution. Additionally, environmental chemists help reduce the strain on natural materials through creating synthetic replacements, more efficient processing, and new recycling technologies. It is common for environmental chemists to work with environmental engineers, planners, hazardous waste management technicians and other engineering specialists as well as lawyers and bankers.

Environmental chemists perform research and conduct experiments in laboratories and in offices on computers, testing and predicting possible environmental problems and generating solutions. They evaluate each project to find the most cost-effective solutions to problems while still maintaining recognized scientific methods and government standards.
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  Interests and Skills  
What does it take to become an environmental chemist? First, they should be interested in sustainability and the environment. Environmental chemists need good communication skills including reading and writing, and an affinity for mathematics, science and problem solving. They should be able to work independently as well as with a team, have incredible patience, and meticulousness. Chemists should also enjoy synthesizing information and finding innovative solutions to environmental problems, working with instruments at tasks requiring precision, and directing the work of others. They should also be persistent because experiments will not always yield the desired results.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Study the thermodynamic and kinetic characteristics of processes that affect chemicals in the environment and engineered treatment systems and how chemical, physical and biological processes interact
  • Determine the sources of chemicals in the environment
  • Develop and utilize analytical techniques to determine concentrations, spaciation and arial and temporal distribution of chemicals in environmental systems
  • Help in risk assessments of toxicants, including mechanisms of action and exposure amounts, timing and bioavailability
  • Elucidate historical chemical inputs through chemical markers
  • Contribute to new and improved industrial processes and treatment systems to decrease pollution
  • Investigate chemical characteristics of the atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere, including natural and human-induced variations
  • Collect, measure, predict and categorize physical, chemical and bioactivity parameter values for chemicals of interest
  • Model the fate and effects of chemicals in environmental systems
  • Workplaces for environmental chemists are as varied as their job descriptions. Often, their work is done in a laboratory environment. However, when studying the fate and effects of chemicals in the environment, a riverbed or stream may become their lab. Some companies have sophisticated indoor ecosystems in which they test their products. Others collect data outside and miles away from their own production sites. They usually work standard hours, unless deadlines in a project require more time.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Environmental chemists teach at universities and high schools and work for the government. They are also employed by waste management companies to do consulting or remediation work, manufacturing and telecommunications companies, utilities, laboratories, hospitals, the chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical and pulp and paper industries, petroleum and mining companies, private consulting companies and other organizations. They may specialize within their fields.

  Long Term Career Potential  
What does the future hold for environmental chemists? With the increase of environmental problems, they will be required to put in hard work and effort to help repair our damaged environment. With further education, environmental chemists can move into related professional disciplines such as medicine, law and engineering. Some go on to become environmental and scientific writers and even journalists. With experience, they can move into more managerial and supervisory roles, training junior level environmental scientists and guiding the work of research assistants. Environmental management is becoming a popular career track. Also, students who hold degrees in environmental sciences are beginning to compete for jobs traditionally held by geologists, biologists and chemists.

  Educational Paths  
Most environmental chemists begin their postsecondary education by taking a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry or environmental sciences. Those who wish to specialize usually continue their education to the master's or doctoral level. In general, the entrance requirement for master's degree programs in chemistry is an acceptable average in a four-year BS degree program in chemistry (or equivalent). A PhD is often required for research and teaching positions.

Students planning careers as environmental chemists should take courses in environmental sciences and mathematics, and should like working with their hands building scientific apparatus and performing laboratory experiments and computer modeling.




  Universities and Colleges
Clarkson UniversityColorado School of MinesDalhousie University
Oral Roberts UniversityPenn State HarrisburgTemple University
The University of HoustonThompson Rivers UniversityUNB Saint John
University of AlabamaUniversity of ArkansasUniversity of British Columbia
University of IowaUniversity of New BrunswickUniversity of Ottawa
York University
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