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An environmental chemist studies interactions between chemicals and the natural environment. This work is highly interdisciplinary and might integrate aspects of environmental science, chemistry, biology and political science. Environmental chemists can work in academia, for private firms and organizations and in government agencies that focus on environmental health and safety. They might also work with legislators and regulators to develop plans for the responsible use of chemicals and protection of the environment. This field can be very diverse and might include lab work, field work and office work.
One aspect of the work of an environmental chemist involves determining how chemicals enter the environment, where they come from and where they travel after they arrive. Pollutants can move through groundwater and rivers and streams, for example, and might be the result of a variety of things, such as leaching waste pits or deliberately dumped waste. Environmental chemists work in the field to collect samples that they can use to trace chemicals as they move through the environment. Employees of government agencies might use these samples to enforce regulations or to sue polluters in court.
This work also requires the study of what happens to chemicals after they're in the environment. An environmental chemist might study the breakdown of chemicals to learn more about how chemicals disperse and can look at natural phenomena and interactions between chemicals and living organisms. Interplay between chemicals and the environment can be very complex; for example, cities often have a heavy cloud of smog created by the release of chemicals, specific weather conditions and high humidity.
Some environmental chemists look at ways to deal with chemicals in the environment. This can include cleanup in situ, the introduction of more chemicals to break down harmful compounds and the use of techniques such as bioremediation and phytoremediation, in which living organisms are used in environmental cleanup. Researchers might use their work in this field to illustrate the costs of environmental cleanup. This data can be important to have when performing a cost-benefit analysis on proposed legislation and regulations.
A person who has an interest in becoming an environmental chemist should plan on obtaining at least a bachelor's degree. Graduate degrees might offer more opportunities in this field, especially for an environmental chemist who is interested in research. It also can help to join a professional organization for networking and continuing education possibilities. Jobs in environmental chemistry are often listed through professional organizations as well as directly in materials released by companies that use environmental chemists.