James helps protect the environment by assessing the risks to life from certain chemicals in soil, water and air

I examine the presence and impact of certain chemicals in soil, water and air and their effects on human health and organisms in the environment.

What is an environmental chemist?

An environmental chemist understands the fate and behaviour of chemicals in the environment and evaluates their effects (hazards) and risks to human health and other organisms in the environment. This is done through desk-based research, fieldwork and/or laboratory work, including measurements, data interpretation and computer modelling. Environmental chemists may be exposed to contaminants and hazardous conditions in the course of their work and wear appropriate personal protective equipment.

Photo of a scientist taking a soil sample

Source: Shutterstock

What do you do in your job?

I work within the Chemical Assessment Unit (CAU) at the Environment Agency. My current role builds on previous experience applying knowledge of environmental chemistry to assessing risks to human health and the environment from contaminants in soil, surface water and groundwater at contaminated land sites. Working as part of a team, my current role as a chemical exposure specialist involves assessing the exposure and risks of chemicals in the environment, evaluating the options to manage the risks and connecting with a broad range of stakeholders including the chemical industry, HSE, the European Chemicals Agency and other regulatory authorities.

The work of CAU supports the UK Competent Authority for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulation which involves assessing the environmental hazards and risks of industrial and consumer chemicals (anything from soap fragrances to water and oil repellent chemicals used in non-stick pans). REACH seeks to improve the protection of human health and the environment through identification of hazards and risks of substances and taking appropriate risk management action on priority substances. I review scientific information to evaluate substances that may pose a risk to the environment and propose regulatory action if it is demonstrated that they do.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy solving problems in a multidisciplinary scientific setting in order to reduce the risk from hazardous substances to human health and the environment – even if it takes a long time for the natural world to recover from exposure to hazardous substances. My previous work involved ‘hands on’ clean up or remediation of contamination in the environment and I enjoyed working outdoors for part of the time.

I served on the Royal Society of Chemistry Environmental Chemistry Interest Group committee for a number of years which was a positive experience, particularly in writing articles for the bulletin and organising scientific events. I remain an active member of the Environmental Chemistry Group which allows me to interact with environmental chemists working in other areas such as atmospheric chemistry.

What attracted you to becoming an environmental chemist?

After a brief period of working in a laboratory, I decided to change career direction to another science-based role where I could work with a broader range of stakeholders and apply my chemistry knowledge to multidisciplinary problems. I was attracted into my current role because I have had a long term interest in environmental matters, the role routinely requires me to use a large amount of chemistry knowledge and there is always something new to learn.

How did you get into your job?

During my A-levels, I did as much research as I could to try and find out what job I should do, including talking to my chemistry tutors at school. From this I decided to study an undergraduate degree in chemistry, with the idea of working in the chemical industry.

There weren’t many local job opportunities where I grew up and I thought a chemistry degree would give me more national employability. At the time, I did not know my current role existed. After graduating, I initially considered a career in synthetic organic chemistry, as that was my favourite degree subject, so I started postgraduate research at the University of St Andrews, working in the laboratory doing “hands on” chemistry. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I originally expected, so I decided to finish the research and get into the work place. After a spell of voluntary work I worked in environmental consultancy, developing my knowledge and experience in environmental chemistry and problem solving. After 13 years of working in environmental consultancy (primarily contaminated land) which involved a lot of field work, I moved to CAU at the Environment Agency where I focus on risk assessment and management of chemicals in the environment.

What are the opportunities for career progression?

The main employers in environmental chemistry are the regulatory authorities, environmental consultancies with some opportunities in remediation contractors (clean-up of contamination), analytical laboratories (measuring chemical concentrations in soil, water etc) and academic positions. The main opportunities are generally within the environmental consultancies. A typical career path would be moving up to a management/business development position, or something specifically technical, which is more likely in a larger organisation. Alternatively some people move between all of the main employer types taking on different roles in the environmental sector.

What advice would you give for people wishing to enter your career area?

I would recommend working in environmental chemistry such as evaluating chemicals in the environment and contributing to contaminated land solutions for a career. Although the financial benefits may not be as great as in other professions, it is multidisciplinary and there is variety in the job which I think is a big advantage. For example, you could be working on a chemical pollution problem at a site anywhere in the world and then you could move onto another site somewhere completely different, with a different problem to assess and solve.

First published 2019