|The VU’s Department of Environment & Health conducts academic research and training to strengthen our understanding of the impacts of environmental contaminants on human health and the environment. Multiple disciplines such as analytical chemistry, (eco)toxicology, risk assessment, epidemiology and health sciences are brought together to both educate students and conduct world class research. The systems studied by this unique group span from the molecular level to populations, ecosystems and society.
Graduates of E&H academic programs are able to bring their fundamental understanding of the chemical contamination, toxicological effects and health aspects needed to find solutions to global health issues. E&H’s researchers make use of state-of-the-art technical equipment and methodologies and their large international network to provide knowledge of the impacts of emerging contaminants to science, industry, governments and society. E&H’s expertise and research output make an important contribution to the knowledge needed for informed environmental governance of the most pressing environmental pollution issues.
There are organic micropollutants everywhere
Organic micropollutants are ubiquitous on earth. To illustrate this: every spoonful of sediment from the bed of the North Sea contains microplastics. Organic micropollutants can also be found in human milk and the blood and stools of all humans everywhere. They comprise traces of pesticides from fruit and vegetables and of fire retardants and plasticizers which slowly leach out of furniture, electrical equipment and building materials.
Effects on human and environmental health
Companies make these chemicals for specific reasons: they help to prevent plant diseases, or fires, or make materials softer, but no one wants them to harm human health or cause environmental problems. The potetntial toxic effects of all these chemicals on human health and the environment are therefore a major concern of government bodies, companies and consumers. Once these parties have clear answers, they will be able to take adequate measures.
But the question is complex: how do you determine the effects of so many chemicals in the environment, and in a way that the information is adequate to meet the needs of society? Regulatory bodies now often consider the environmental concentrations of micropollutants one by one, which is laborious and expensive and means that as-yet-unidentified and undetectable industrial chemicals are overlooked. Another concern is that the joint effect of chemicals on humans and the environment is not investigated. This effect of mixtures may even be larger than the sum of the effects of individual compounds. Effects can be studied at different biological levels (e.g. molecules, cells, populations), and they are dependent on exposure concentrations, exposure time, species sensitivity and other concurrent stress factors.
We need an integrated approach addressing the multiple aspects of environmental contamination issues in order to effectively probe the question of risks of these chemicals for human health and the environment. Where does the pollution come from? Which chemicals or groups of chemicals are involved? How toxic are they to cells, tissues, organs, animals, plants and humans? And what does exposure to chemicals mean for a community, for example, people living in the vicinity of emissions?
VU Environment & Health is one of the few research groups in the world using an integrated and multidisciplinary approach to environmental contamination studies. It carries out chemical research on molecules, toxicological research on cells, tissues, organs and animals and epidemiological research on groups of adults and children. The researchers use a wide range of technologies to investigate the entire process from the source of the pollution to the effects on humans and the environment.
Interpretation of the presence of chemicals improving all the time
The Department of Environment and Health is committed to expanding the technologies it has developed so that, besides determining the effects of individual substances, it can also determine the effects of mixtures of substances rapidly and reliably. One of its other objectives is to improve its ability to interpret the increasing information available about the nature and quantities of contaminants in the environment. Both of these objectives require state-of-the art analytical chemistry, multiple bioassays and their efficient (High Throughput) use.