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The challenge

A rise in the rate of new consumer and industrial chemicals

There is an increasing rate at which new consumer and industrial chemicals are developed and introduced to the market.  Now familiar are the terms endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), nanoparticles, PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances), and microplastics, however, it was long after their use commenced when the environmental risks began to be understood.

Increased community awareness has led to increased expectation that we protect our valuable ecosystem resources through the sound management and regulation of contaminant issues, including the many emerging contaminants.

Our response

Researching the impacts of new chemicals

We research the fate and effects of a range of new chemicals, seeking to provide data that can be used to assess the risk that these emerging contaminants may pose within a range of different aquatic and terrestrial environments. This involves investigation of chemical and ecotoxicological properties and desktop modelling.

For a number of years, we have investigated the risks associated with a range of nanomaterials. We are currently assessing the risks posed by PFAS chemicals in sediments and soils.

Some emerging contaminants exist within complex mixtures, for example, the geogenic contaminants in the return waters from coal seam and shale fracking operations, and produced formation waters from offshore oil and gas production. The risk from chemical additives used within these industries and the toxicity of these complex mixtures that exist within waters created as a result of their operations, is the subject of ongoing investigations.

The results

Emerging contaminants identified

We have been generating new toxicity data using Australian species and deriving guideline values for a range of chemicals.

Using advanced chemistry and ecotoxicology, we showed that nanoparticles such as fullerenes and metal oxides (ZnO, CeO2) and silver comprise an emerging class of contaminants that pose low risks to the environment. We combined sensitive radioisotope and non‐radioisotope techniques to show that fullerenes that enter the terrestrial environment through waste streams such as sewage sludge are strongly bound to organic matter and are not biologically available.

Our research on the safety of nanoparticles has demonstrated that this emerging class of contaminants poses low risk to the environment, a finding which has been adopted by the national regulator.

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