What is Environmental Toxicology?
Environmental toxicology is a field of environmental science that studies how exposure to toxic chemicals can directly change the health of individuals or indirectly affect us by disrupting or defiling the content of lakes, oceans, forests, and the atmosphere. Environmental toxicologists also assess the potential risks of substances that may be deemed harmful to people, animals, or other aspects of the environment.
The Air We Breathe
As an interdisciplinary science studying every aspect of the biosphere, environmental toxicology has focused on the effect of man-made pollutants on our atmosphere for the past 40 years. Since discovering that rates of skin cancer were rising along with evidence that the ozone layer was deteriorating, environmental toxicologists have kept detailed statistics on the increasing amount of pollution in the atmosphere and its detrimental effects on human and animal life. Environmental toxicologists cite evidence of rampant pollution in the erosion caused by acid rain.
Aquatic Systems and Excess Nutrients
Although we’re taught we should make sure we get plenty of nutrients in our daily diet, environmental toxicology has found evidence that an excess amount of nutrients in runoff from agricultural fields can devastate an aquatic system. Although phosphorous, carbon and nitrogen are essential to proper growth, too much of them can cause a harmful surplus of plant and microbial growth that can choke and kill ecological systems. This causes eutrophication in lakes and streams, which is usually the reason behind massive fish kills. Environmental toxicologists investigate these kinds of habitat disruptions and advise on how to resolve them.
Since the industrial revolution of more than 150 years ago, consumer and factory waste products, which erode soils and release heavy metals into our natural water supply, have rapidly contaminated our drinking water. Environmental toxicology researches the amount and effects of these metallic elements that are considered high density and toxic to humans in minimal doses. Some of the more common heavy metals are mercury, arsenic, lead, and chromium, which can accumulate in our bodies. Creating substances that can counteract the effects of these metals is another facet of environmental toxicology.
Environmental toxicology encompasses a broad area of the sciences and sometimes overlaps with biotechnology. Research in how environmental toxins can affect DNA structure and produce mutations in both human and animal organisms is another area environmental toxicologists cover. In addition, they also examine detailed aspects regarding the intake, metabolism, and excretion of toxic elements in the air or water. An example of this type of research involves the detrimental consequences on human health resulting from the radioactive fallout following the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster.
The Big C – Cancer
A major area of research in the field of environmental toxicology involves how toxic elements released into the environment precipitate the emergence of cancers such as leukemia, lung cancer, lymphomas, and melanoma. An environmental toxicologist will investigate the incidences of such cancers and how intensely exposed an individual or groups of people suffering from cancer have been to certain chemicals. Some of these harmful chemicals include pesticides, asbestos, solvents, and herbicides. In addition, environmental toxicologists are often activists who try to lobby for regulations on these chemicals.
The creation of chemicals meant to facilitate our lives sometimes backfires. At these times, the field of environmental toxicology steps in to determine these chemicals’ effects, what we can expect if we continue to use them, and how we might reduce the harmful effects of such damaging chemicals on ourselves and on our environment.