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The challenge

Ecosystems under threat

Water and soil resources throughout the world are under increasing pressure from rapidly expanding population demands and climate change. Aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are under threat from a wide range of contaminants that can be released (unintentional and intentional) through human activities such as agriculture, industrial developments, mining, and urbanisation. These include common metal and organic contaminants together with a range of emerging contaminants including per- and poly-fluroalkyl substances (PFAS), endocrine disrupting chemicals, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, and nanoparticles.

If released into the environment, contaminants can pose a significant toxic threat to aquatic and terrestrial biota and to human health through air, food and water contamination.

Contaminants can have direct, indirect and cumulative impacts on aquatic and terrestrial environments. The ability of industries to identify, assess, and control or manage these impacts will determine their environmental and social footprint, social licence to operate, and impact on profits. Risk management processes often focus on incremental risks from a single operation in isolation. However, cumulative risks on water and soil resources often occur due to multiple agents or stressors for a shared resource with other industries, agriculture and communities. An assessment of cumulative impacts is increasingly being recognised as a necessity for sustainable development.

Increased societal concerns about the environmental impacts of human activities are driving a reshaping of the role and expectations of industries and governments into the future. There is a global push for change in environmental risk assessment and management to reduce long-term environmental, social and economic risks and costs by moving from a reactionary approach that meets regulatory needs and compliance to a long-term proactive and adaptive approach that reduces environmental and social risks, increases industries' social license to operate, and decreases costs for the life of operations, leading to positive closure or decommissioning.

This has led to increasing community expectation that we protect our valuable ecosystem resources through the sound management and regulation of contaminant issues.

Future contaminant impacts will not be the same as they are now. For example, the population will increase, disruptive technologies and industries will emerge in new locations, and climate change will alter land and water use. These changes will alter the contaminant landscape to increase the pressure of contaminants on the environment and human health, including risks of infectious diseases arising from microbial contaminants.

Our response

An evidence-based approach

We provide a multidisciplinary weight of evidence approach to environmental risk assessments that combines an understanding of sources, exposure scenarios and concentrations, processes and receptors that enable appropriate monitoring, control/mitigation and management strategies.

We undertake an integrated systems approach to environmental risk assessment that acknowledges and addresses the complexity, interconnectivity, changing, and unpredictable nature of the environments, contaminant fate and behaviour, operations and human activities. A systems approach enables the prediction of environmental risks before they occur, evaluation of scenarios, and implementation of appropriate monitoring, control and management strategies to reduce risks and improve environmental performance.

We provide expert advice and leadership on contaminant issues to national and international government agencies, especially chemicals of concern and emerging chemicals. We provide state-of the-art tools for the measurement of contaminants (and their transformational products) in sediments, soils and waters, their speciation, lability and potential availability, and apply a multi-tiered decision framework, incorporating both whole animal testing and novel in vitro cell and molecular screening tools in multiple lines-of-evidence frameworks for risk assessments.

We examine contaminant biogeochemical cycles to better understand the distribution, transport and fate in aquatic and soil systems, and their link to biological responses and ecosystem services and process.

We have expertise in the development and application of state-of-the art aquatic and terrestrial ecotoxicological techniques and tools for robust environmental risk assessments. We develop and utilise a range of whole-organism exposure tests that measure effects on survival, growth and reproduction for current regulatory decision making. In addition, we develop novel in vitro cell and molecular screening tools for high-throughput hazard screening and assessing chemical mechanisms of action to prioritise chemical hazards and environmental risk assessments through adverse outcome pathway approaches and multiple lines of evidence frameworks.

We have developed rapid and sensitive environmental sensors in portable instruments using techniques such as mid-infrared spectroscopy, x-ray diffraction and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, to detect and measure in situ chemicals and contaminants in soils and sediments (e.g. PAHs, PFAS, and cyanide). We are able to predict the reactivity/leachability of mineral phases (e.g. sulfides and oxides) in tailings and soils, and monitoring and compliance of waste wasters and discharges (e.g. thio salts, microplastics).

Environmental report cards are important communication tools that enable synthesis of complex information from multiple sources to provide an overall score for ecosystem health. We have applied them to identify particular issues and regions of concern and to enable adaptive management. Each report card has its own features and approaches related to the type of ecosystem, the goal and values identified by stakeholders, the geographic scale, and the availability of monitoring data and benchmarks/targets.

There are ongoing challenges to provide effective guidelines, tools and frameworks for environmental assessment of contaminant risks, and to be able to predict the outcomes of new technologies and industries to improve decision making, reducing costs to both industry and regulators. These provide confidence in developments and monitoring, controls and management decisions. We have made major contributions to the development and revisions of the Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality (including soils and sediments).

Expertise and leadership

We look at what happens to contaminants in our waters and landscapes and measure and predict effects on ecosystems.

We work directly with industry and assist government with environmental risk assessment programs.

When necessary, we develop new tools and procedures to better evaluate the environmental effects of contaminants.

When required, we help respond to national emergencies and urgent government needs, and we develop new approaches and methods for assessing emerging environmental challenges.

We provide targeted solutions to utilities, government and industries to implement best management practices for the improvement of catchment water quality.

We work across all land and seascapes, with our research applications spanning freshwater, estuarine and marine ecosystems, coastal to inland, arid or alpine landscapes, and from tropical to polar climates.

Our capability

We have a strong track record of multidisciplinary science providing leadership, advice and management solutions to national and global challenges. CSIRO has an extensive track record in delivering key research and solutions for environmental risk assessments of chemicals and contaminants protecting human health and aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems for current and future generations.

We have extensive expertise in the development, application and integration of state-of-the art techniques chemical and ecotoxicity tools and approaches to enable robust assessments the risks posed by contaminants in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems for better monitoring, control/mitigation and management.

Our research capability covers the following areas:

  • multidisciplinary weight-of-evidence approaches to environmental risk assessments
  • trace and ultratrace analysis of contaminants (both inorganic, e.g. metals, and organic contaminants including contaminants of emerging concern), determination of speciation and measures of lability and bioavailability
  • microbial contaminant tracking and pathogen monitoring
  • ecotoxicity assessments including the response of Australian biota to contaminants in the environment, whole organism testing (sediments, soils and waters), direct toxicity assessments, in vitro cell and molecular screening tools, in situ monitoring and identifying contaminants of concern (toxicity identification evaluation (TIE))
  • ecotoxicogenomics, molecular ecology and molecular techniques to assess ecosystem services
  • sediment quality assessment
  • soil quality assessment
  • linking biogeochemical processes from the molecular level through to landscape-scale transformations of elements and anthropogenic compounds
  • groundwater contaminants
  • fate and ecotoxicity of emerging chemicals
  • sources and fate of contaminants using isotope tracers or fingerprints
  • fate, behaviour and effects of microplastics in sediments and soils
  • antimicrobial resistance in the environment
  • environmental communication and score cards
  • risk-based approaches to assessing contaminant impacts on ecosystems
  • testing and assessment programs (laboratory and field) that are scalable to understand environmental processes and impacts.

We mobilise our capability in response to national priorities and the assessment needs of both industry and government agencies, communicate science findings to a range of stakeholders (governments, community and industry) and provide expert advice for protection of natural environments and sustainable developments (triple bottom line, three pillars: environment, community and financial).

Our activities

We work across many industry sectors and government agencies and regulators:

  • Mining
  • Onshore and offshore gas and petroleum
  • Agriculture
  • Port authorities
  • Water utilities
  • Chemical manufacturers
  • Waste producers, recyclers and distributors
  • Defence, Department of Environment, State EPAs and regulators
  • Government and industry advisory committees
  • Small and medium-sized enterprises

We work through multiple operational stages:

  • Baseline assessments
  • Feasibility studies (EIS, ERA)
  • Operations and optimisation
  • Decommissioning and closure
  • Remediation and rehabilitation
  • Legacy sites

Our work reduces both impacts and costs for industry and government, improves the environment and increases stakeholder confidence in environmental and human health protection measures.

Our research ensures that environmental assessments and management frameworks are underpinned by a scientific-evidence base to improve trust by stakeholders and the community, and to assist in pathways to social acceptance.

Environmental contaminant assessment and management case study

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