New ways of measuring dangerous pollutants in the environment

The ELUTE project is funding budding young researchers to assess whether certain compounds persist in the environment and could pose a threat to human health.

New ways of measuring dangerous pollutants in the environment

Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) have been used for decades in consumer products made of plastic, foam, wood and textiles to prevent combustion and slow down the spread of fire. There is growing evidence however that exposure to these compounds could lead to serious health problems. Indeed, while the EU bans or restricts the use of certain BFRs, their persistence in the environment means that they could still pose a risk to public health.

This is why the EU’s Marie Curie European Industrial Doctorate programme has decided to award a EUR1.2 million grant to four early-stage researchers from Asia, Australia and Europe under the ELUTE project (Elucidating Sources & Pathways of Environmental Contamination with Brominated Persistent Organic Chemicals Using Advanced Instrumental Tools). The ELUTE researchers will use the funding to help them assess the extent to which chemicals in BFRs are damaging our environment and our health.

The overall goal of the ELUTE initiative is not only to better understand the extent of the risk of exposure, but also to develop new ways of detecting such pollutants in the environment. To achieve this, researchers will be working closely with analytical instrument manufacturers, and it is expected that project results will lead to new methods for analysing pollutant levels.

First of all though, the researchers plan to assess the extent to which current field-based instruments can be reliably used to identify the presence of BFRs, and whether the use of these compounds has led to an increase in environmental contamination. The project is also interested in finding out the environmental fate of BFRs and the extent to which they degrade or persist.

This project follows growing scientific interest in developing better and more innovative detection techniques. A recent study from the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs in the US, for example, attempted to measure chemical concentrations by looking at tree bark. Concentrations of BFRs were associated with population density, suggesting the compounds most likely entered the environment through their use in nearby homes and offices.

The EU’s Marie Curie funding programme, named after the double Nobel Prize-winning Polish-French scientist famed for her work on radioactivity, supports researchers at all stages of their careers, irrespective of nationality. Researchers working across all disciplines, from life-saving healthcare to ‘blue-sky’ science, are eligible for funding.

In addition to generous research funding, scientists have the possibility to gain experience abroad and in the private sector, and to complete their training with competences or disciplines useful for their careers. Participants of the ELUTE project, for example, will have the opportunity to work in both Germany at the Thermo Fisher Scientific Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Centre of Excellence in Bremen, and in the UK, at the University of Birmingham. The ELUTE project is due for completion in September 2017.