ⓘ Environmental chemistry is the scientific study of the chemical and biochemical phenomena that occur in natural places. Environmental chemistry can be defined a ..

Environmental chemistry

ⓘ Environmental chemistry

Environmental chemistry is the scientific study of the chemical and biochemical phenomena that occur in natural places. Environmental chemistry can be defined as the study of the sources, reactions, transport, effects, and fates of chemical species in the air, soil, and water environments; and the effect of human activity on these. Environmental chemistry is an interdisciplinary science that includes atmospheric, aquatic and soil chemistry, as well as uses analytical chemistry. It is related to environmental and other areas of science. It is different from green chemistry, which tries to reduce potential pollution at its source.

Environmental chemistry starts by understanding how the uncontaminated environment works. It identifies the chemicals that are present naturally. It studies the concentration and effects of those chemicals. Then, it accurately study the effects humans have on the environment through the release of chemicals.

Environmental chemists draw on a range of concepts from chemistry and various environmental sciences to assist in their study of what is happening to a chemical in the environment. Important general concepts from chemistry include understanding chemical reactions and equations, solutions, units, sampling, and analytical techniques. Chemists study compounds with biological activity such as pheromones.


1. Contamination

A contaminant is a substance present in nature at a level higher than typical levels or that would not otherwise be there. This may be due to human activity. The term contaminant is often used interchangeably with pollutant, which is a substance that hurts the surrounding environment. While a contaminant is sometimes defined as a substance present in the environment as a result of human activity, but without harmful effects, it is sometimes the case that toxic or harmful effects from contamination only become apparent at a later date.

The "medium" for example, soil or organism for example, fish affected by the pollutant or contaminant is called a receptor. A sink is a chemical medium or species that retains and interacts with the pollutant.


2. Environmental indicators

Chemical measures of water quality include dissolved oxygen DO, chemical oxygen demand COD, biochemical oxygen demand BOD, total dissolved solids TDS, pH, nutrients nitrates and phosphorus, heavy metals, and pesticides.


3. Applications

Environmental chemistry is used by the Environment Agency in England and Wales, the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States the Association of Public Analysts, and other environmental agencies and research bodies around the world to detect and identify the nature and source of pollutants. These can include:

  • Organometallic compounds.
  • Nutrients leaching from agricultural land into water courses, which can lead to algal blooms and eutrophication.
  • Heavy metal contamination of land by industry. These can then be transported into water bodies and be taken up by living organisms.
  • Urban runoff of pollutants washing off impervious surfaces during rain storms. Typical pollutants include gasoline, motor oil and other hydrocarbon compounds, metals, nutrients and sediment soil.

4. Methods

Quantitative chemical analysis is a key part of environmental chemistry, since it provides the data that frame most environmental studies.

Common analytical techniques used for quantitative determinations in environmental chemistry include classical wet chemistry, such as gravimetric, titrimetric and electrochemical methods. More sophisticated approaches are used in the determination of trace metals and organic compounds. Metals are commonly measured by atomic spectroscopy and mass spectrometry: Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometry AAS and Inductively Coupled Plasma Atomic Emission ICP-AES or Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometric ICP-MS techniques. Organic compounds are commonly measured also using mass spectrometric methods, such gas chromatography–mass spectrometry GC-MS and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry LC/MS. Non-MS methods using GCs and LCs having universal or specific detectors are still staples in the arsenal of available analytical tools.

Other parameters often measured in environmental chemistry are radiochemicals. These are pollutants which emit radioactive materials, such as alpha and beta particles, posing danger to human health and the environment. Particle counters and Scintillation counters are most commonly used for these measurements. Bioassays and immunoassays are utilized for toxicity evaluations of chemical effects on various organisms.


5. Published analytical methods

Peer-reviewed test methods have been published by government agencies and private research organizations. Approved published methods must be used when testing to demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements.