Reducing the risk of pollution to humans and the environment: event review

09 July 2020 | Richard Thwaites

The inaugural “virtual” joint meeting of the Victorian Branch Health, Safety & Environment Group and SCI Australia Group was held on Thursday April 30th. Over 40 people made history by registering to attend from Victoria and interstate.

The theme of the meeting was “Chemicals in the Environment” with the sub-heading: “Reducing the risk of pollution to humans and the environment”. Associate Professor Suzie Reichman from RMIT University showcased some of her group’s recent research, ably assisted by PhD students Ms Zhuyun Gu and Mr Justin Morrisy.

Suzie took us from vegetable gardens around Melbourne to the frozen wasteland of Antarctica, focussing on different types of pollutant. Some potentially toxic elements occur naturally: other toxicants occur as a result of human activity. In one example, Suzie was able to show that fortunately, lead levels in soils in gardens used to grow vegetables are generally well below generally acceptable limits, so it is safe to continue to eat your broccoli, beetroot and beans if you want to. On the other hand, there are areas where lead concentrations are much higher as a result of former industrial activity.  Lead originating from paint and fuels still lingers on in the environment!  In Antarctica, Suzie’s group has focused on pollution from human activity and has studied in depth how “moss piglets” (aka tardigrades) are able to survive most hostile environments.  Her research group is particularly looking at the effect of metal and fuel soil contamination on tardigrades and other invertebrates:  although well adapted to pristine Antarctic conditions, nobody yet knows how these little creatures will be affected by or adapt to pollution from human sources. Suzie’s aim is to provide answers!

Ms Gu talked about her work on palladium. Degradation of components of catalytic converters in cars seems to be the main source of palladium compounds in roadside dust and soil. To what extent this becomes a major health problem remains to be seen.

Mr Morrisy’s presentation focused on the effects of differing concentrations of nitrogen compounds on microorganisms in aquifers. He presented results of a series of studies of particular groundwater aquifers measured at different depths below the surface.

The virtual “meeting” was expertly set up by RACI Branch Coordinator, Ms Alyce Scanlon-Batt, and from feedback received via the “chat” function, was thoroughly enjoyed by all participants.

The next “Chemicals in the Environment” virtual meeting will be on Thursday June 18th at 5-30 pm. The main speaker will be Dr Brad Clarke (University of Melbourne) and his topic will be:  “Identifying Emerging Contaminants in the Environment with QTOF MS”. His talk will focus on the illicit chemical stockpile fire in Footscray and how LCQTOF “untargeted analysis” allowed for the identification of contaminants released into the environment. 

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