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Isotope forensics meets biogeochemistry – linking sources and sinks of organic contaminants by compound specific isotope investigation

Final Report Summary - CSI:ENVIRONMENT (Isotope forensics meets biogeochemistry – linking sources and sinks of organic contaminants by compound specific isotope investigation)

CSI:Environment network consists of 10 full partners (one industrial and 9 academic partners), and 4 associated partners from 9 EU countries. It aimed to provide a training platform for more than 16 young researchers in the emerging field of environmental forensics and biogeochemistry using isotope techniques. It is a major challenge in contemporary environmental science to relate the origin of spills, transport and subsequent distribution of chemicals in the environment and to determine potential sinks and elimination pathways at a local, regional and global scale. Isotope analysis offers a unique opportunity to obtain this information. The scientific objectives of the network were as follows: (i) Development of novel methods and techniques for isolation and pre-concentration of organic compounds; (ii) Subsequent multi-element isotope analysis for selected organic contaminants; (iii) Improved understanding of isotope fractionation processes; (iv) Mathematical model-assisted interpretation of isotope signals in environmental systems.

CSI:ENVIRONMENT Training programme
The training objectives of the network were: (i) CSI:ENVIRONMENT fellows learnt the state of the art in the development and application of isotope techniques to solve important environmental quality issues in a European network consisting of the leading researchers in the field; (ii) CSI:ENVIRONMENT provided a training platform for young researchers and create strong links between research, environmental consulting, governmental agencies, and industry, enabling strong professional network building for the young scientists; (iii) Each early stage researcher developed an individual career development plan in interaction with the supervisors and will get the opportunity to complete a PhD thesis.
A comprehensive training programme was successfully implemented. Seven network wide training courses covered fields such as analytics and isotope analytics, environmental chemistry, molecular modelling, and reactive transport modelling. Each fellow project required specialized knowledge in one or two of the fields, but all fellows received basic training in all these complementary areas. The training courses, in addition to the regular network meetings (seven in total), provided a great opportunity for the fellows for interaction and collaborations. Ten secondments took place, and several projects and publications were done in cooperation. Three sessions were organized within CSI:ENVIRONMENT events to provide the fellows with an insight into the industry and regulatory fields, and to improve the transfer of knowledge and the fellows’ career perspectives. Two sessions were organized to aid fellows in the next steps of their career. The fellows also received training in soft skills at their home institutions. The training of management and teaching skills was covered by the involvement of the fellows as organizers and teachers of a session about stable isotope analysis for environmental applications at the International Summer School at Masaryk University (June 2014). Fellows thus obtained a unique training, which will considerably increase their chances to pursue successful careers in the field of environmental forensics and (bio)geochemistry in academia, industry and regulatory authorities. To date five fellows already defended their PhD thesis.

Main scientific results
CSI:ENVIRONMENT trained fellows in sixteen projects within four main training areas: 1) Methods, 2) Processes, 3) Modelling and 4) Implementation. Four projects focused on the development of novel “Methods” for sample collection, preparation and isolation for the qualitative and quantitative analysis of organic chemicals and their products; and on the development of novel isotope methods for other elements (Cl) and polar substances for which, so far, no online methods were available. In the training area “Processes”, four projects focused on the photochemical transformations of organic contaminants in different matrixes. One project addressed the elucidation of the effects of biotic reactions on isotope fingerprints of halogenated organic compounds. And one project dealt with theoretical modelling of isotopic fractionation of halogenated organics. The training area “Modelling” dealt with the mathematical evaluation/interpretation/quantification of isotope data in environmental systems at different scales by means of reactive transport modelling (RTM). Two projects aimed to the development of models to assess reactive transport processes of contaminants at the local scale, and two projects tackled the development of RTMs at the regional and global scales. The training area “implementation” comprised two fellow projects which aimed at the application of the developed methods, their validation, and implementation at the commercial scale, as well as standardization and certification.

Main scientific highlights include: analytical methods are now available for isotope analysis of new compound classes, complex environmental matrixes, polar compounds, and elements (Cl), which were not available to date; stable isotope tools demonstrated to offer new opportunities for the elucidation and understanding of photodegradation mechanisms; several RTMs models have been developed for the source apportionment and degradation quantification of environmental pollutants at local, regional and global scales using isotope data; and theoretical models are now available for the better interpretation of isotope fractionation factors of environmentally relevant compounds.

CSI:ENVIRONMENT results have received considerable public attention. More than 20 publications in peer-reviewed journals have resulted, and numerous publications are currently submitted or in preparation (~5 papers). Results were presented at various international conferences (>40 contributions). An increased visibility of our network to the scientific community was obtained by contributions and special mention at the international conferences JESIUM-2012 and ISOTOPES-2013, which are of high impact for the research field. The participation of CSI:ENVIRONMENT fellows as teachers at the International Summer School at Masaryk University (June 2014), with more than 30 international external participants, provided a platform for dissemination of the project and its results to a wider audience. Additionally, several outreach activities have been performed to explain the benefits of our research to a larger public (i.e. newspaper articles, press releases, open access publication, contact with stakeholders, information points for the public and farmers at the field sites, talks at universities, general public conferences, contribution to outreach sessions at Marie Curie conferences). Regarding the dissemination of the project results to the regulatory field, one “Science and Policy Report” from the Joint Research Center (JRC) has been published with the results of an interlaboratory comparison within CSI:ENVIRONMENT partners to asses quality assurance for carbon isotope analysis. CSI:ENVIRONMENT partners contributed to the User’s Guide from the Environmental Security Certification Program (ESTCP) of USA: ESTCP Project ER-201029 Integrated Stable Isotope – Reactive Transport Model Approach for Assessment of Chlorinated Solvent Degradation. The web-page of the project ( is maintained and plays a key role in the dissemination of CSI:ENVIRONMENT ideas and results.

Potential final impact and CSI:ENVIRONMENT output
CSI:ENVIRONMENT pursued successfully its training and scientific objectives. More than sixteen young scientists were trained in the field of isotope forensics, pushing forward the frontiers of current isotope techniques, developing new areas of isotope applications in environmental sciences applicable for academia, industry as well as regulation. The scientific results of the network provided a major advance in the field. Our industrial partners are interested in commercial exploitation of the results and on the development of new products and services based on the results of the ITN and further cooperation is intended. CSI:ENVIRONMENT promoted the dissemination (to the scientific community, wider public, industry and regulators) and the implementation of isotope tools for environmental forensics applications, which will strongly contribute to improve the quality of environmental monitoring and risk assessment concepts of organic contaminants in Europe. CSI:ENVIRONMENT will have lost-lasting effects as young researchers are enabled to apply the obtained knowledge in their future professional fields and the diverse network composition will provide opportunities for long term links between research, environmental consulting, governmental agencies, and industry, supporting the further development and structuring effect of the European Research Area (ERA) and ensuring the direct knowledge transfer to regulators for future integration of research policy. CSI:ENVIRONMENT fellows received an outstanding training and will disseminate their gained knowledge in their countries and future enterprises.