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Overlooked Unresolved Toxic Organic Pollutants: Resolution, Identification, Measurement and Toxicity:OUTREACH

Final Report Summary - OUTREACH (Overlooked Unresolved Toxic Organic Pollutants: Resolution, Identification, Measurement and Toxicity:OUTREACH)

The EU regulates chemicals by a Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & restriction of CHemicals programme called ‘REACH’, partly to provide a high level of protection of human health and the environment from the use of chemicals. However, some chemicals are produced in such complex mixtures, or are converted to complex mixtures in the environment, that it is currently difficult to regulate for them. The aim of the current project OUTREACH (viz; ‘outside REACH’) was therefore to try develop novel methods for identifying at least some of the components of these complex mixtures, then to make individual examples of some chemicals and to measure just how toxic they are. Our partners in Oslo, Norway (NIVA) and another UK university laboratory (Exeter) made some of the toxicity measurements and we made others. We achieved our goal, particularly for many examples of a group called ‘naphthenic acids’ which had previously remained unidentified for over a century. We showed that these chemicals, which are fairly common in the environment, were not, in general, highly toxic by EU standards, although some, including those with diamond-like structures, had some interesting effects in high concentrations. (The acids were also not common in polluted mussels which otherwise tend to accumulate pollutants from seawater, probably because they are to water soluble to stay inside the mussels for long). The methods we developed also proved useful for other things: we were able to use them to measure complex mixtures of pollutants in city air better than ever before, with colleagues from Birmingham University UK, and with colleagues from Utrecht University, The Netherlands, to study complex mixtures of pollutants in their crude and refined petroleum samples. Very usefully we were able to identify unknown pollutants, which killed thousands of seabirds in the UK in 2013 again using our OUTREACH methods. This resulted in a lot of T,V. and media work and even a change to International Maritime law! Perhaps surprisingly, our methods also allowed us to identify natural chemicals found on insects with collaborators from Sheffield University UK, which are used in insect communication (e.g. between ants).
The success of our work resulted in several awards to our team, including Scopus Young Scientist of the Year 2013 in the category ‘Environmental Science’. That award was developed by publishers Elsevier in association with the US-UK Fulbright Commission and recognised the outstanding achievements of the UK’s early career researchers. One of our team was also elected to be one of the ‘175 faces of chemistry’ to celebrate 175 years of the Royal Society of Chemistry and two obtained travel scholarships to Japan and Australia.
On completion of OUTREACH, young team members went on to join international companies and academic institutions in the U.K. Norway, the Middle East, Bermuda and Australia and two have applied to become permanent members of university staff at Plymouth. In all we published over thirty scientific papers, had over forty media reports and even made a mini-TV documentary with the BBC.