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How can ‘omics’ technologies – which enable large-scale, speedy biological data analysis – improve environmental risk assessment and management?
High-throughput ‘omics’ technologies, which allow exact and synchronised study of thousands of DNA, RNA, proteins and other molecules, are rapidly becoming more advanced and affordable. As these technologies develop, it is becoming quicker, easier and more affordable to generate unprecedented amounts of biological data, much of which could usefully inform environmental management. So far, however, the application of omics information in environmental management has failed to keep pace with the rapid development of omics-based research, meaning there is untapped potential. A recent study highlights the value of bringing omics information into environmental management and outlines practical ways in which omics can contribute to the risk assessment and management of chemicals.
‘Green’ decontamination methods for 1,4-dioxane (solvent linked to cancer, found in paints and cosmetics) offer promise of cleaner water
The chemical 1,4-dioxane, a solvent suspected of causing cancer, is very difficult to clean up once it enters the environment. However, hope is offered by recent scientific developments that use plants, bacteria and fungi to decontaminate water resources. Scientists provided a round-up of these 1,4-dioxane bioremediation techniques in a recent analysis.
Available evidence from the last decade, describing the nature, behaviour and effect of engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) in the environment, has been reviewed. It identified factors that influence ENP distribution and fate and highlighted the existence of significant research gaps which, if filled, would help in understanding the impacts of long-term accumulation of nanomaterials and the changes that occur to them when they are released into the environment.
Seven UV filters with potential endocrine-disrupting properties found at low levels in eggs of seven wild bird species, national park, Spain
Personal Care Products (PCPs) are of increasing global concern, as thousands of tonnes enter the environment every year. Similar to persistent organic pollutants (POPs), some substances used in PCPs are toxic, persist in the environment and accumulate in the bodies of organisms that take them in. This study focused on the presence of ultraviolet filters (UV-Fs) (used in PCPs such as sunscreens and cosmetics) in the unhatched eggs of wild birds.
A recent overview and analysis shows that increasing amounts of gas drilling at Groningen, the largest gas field in Europe, led to a dramatic rise in regional earthquakes between 2001 and 2013. After a reduction in extraction was introduced by the Dutch Government, earthquake numbers started to fall. Statistical analysis reveals that if high extraction rates were resumed, about 35 earthquakes, with a magnitude (M) of over 1.5 on the Richter scale, might occur annually from the year 2021 onwards, including four with a damaging magnitude of over 2.5.
The potential of recycling aluminium scrap in Austria has been modelled in a new study. A surplus of mixed aluminium scrap is expected by 2045 if no advanced sorting technologies are applied. Increased demand for wrought aluminium alloys could mean this surplus occurs sooner. New methods to intensively sort aluminium could prevent this excess and contribute towards REACH1 recycling and climate targets.
New energy-positive waste-water treatment process uses just 15% of the energy required for current alternative
Conventional municipal waste-water treatment processes are based on aeration, which is energy intensive. Now, researchers have developed an alternative waste-water treatment process. In addition to avoiding the use of aeration in favour of filtration/biofiltration and encapsulated denitrification (the application of capsules containing nitrifiers, which convert ammonium into nitrate), the process also uses waste biosolids to generate electrical energy. The process has been tested in a pilot facility and found to require just 15% of the energy required for conventional approaches. Moreover, the process is energy positive, as the biosolids are able to generate more than enough energy to power the treatment plant. If this technology could be scaled up to the municipal level, it could significantly reduce the energy use and environmental impacts of waste-water treatment.
Satellite images taken over a 30-year period have shown that a French national park in the Alps has become greener with more vegetation, as snow cover disappears under a changing climate. These landscape changes have important implications for alpine biodiversity and ecosystem services, warn the scientists behind the study.
Insect numbers in west German nature reserves have fallen by more than 76% in just 27 years, according to a new study. The fall was even higher in the summer months, with 82% on average fewer insects being recorded. The reasons for this dramatic fall are unclear. The researchers ruled out changes in weather, plant cover and local landscape playing a significant role in the observed decline, but suggest that intensive agriculture and pesticides in fields near to the reserves could be responsible. Whatever the cause, the catastrophic fall in insect numbers will inevitably lead to knock-on effects on ecosystems in the long term, particularly due to their essential role as pollinators and their position in the food web. The researchers say that preserving and protecting insects should now be a priority for conservation policies.
A successful circular economy for valuable metals needs more than just effective recycling technologies, as a new study shows. The research, which explored the governance of recovering vanadium from steel-industry waste, revealed that industry stakeholders feel the prospect of financial gain, or reduced costs, through recovery is too distant at present. This perception could hinder a circular economy for critical materials from industrial residue, the study warns.
If the EU is to combat resource scarcity, it is necessary to develop and refine strategies for substituting raw materials with sustainable alternatives, such as recovered by-products from waste. A recent study presents a new approach for evaluating the sustainability of raw materials’ substitutions, based on the quantification of the embodied energy (energy required to produce the material from ores and feedstock) and carbon dioxide footprint (greenhouse gasses produced and released into the atmosphere during the production of the material) of both the raw material and its proposed substitute. The evaluation method has been applied to a real case, where it indicates that substituting a raw material (calcite) with stabilised fly ash for use as a filler in polypropylene composites in plastic manufacturing may be sustainable. The study also highlights the need for additional policy tools and legislation to encourage Europe’s transition towards a circular economy.
International trade has increasingly relied on material resources since the 1990s, according to a new study. The research used the most detailed global computer model available for capturing the effects of international trade on the environment and on the efficiency of resource use between 1995–2011. Sharp increases in the trade of cheap ‘fast fashion’ and mass market electronics are highlighted as two of the fastest growing drivers of this change in material inefficiency.
An innovative system for pricing household water is proposed in a new EU-funded study1 researched in the US and UK. The tariff is designed by combining the economic value of water with reservoir storage data, and is intended to cut water usage during times of shortage by charging large-volume consumers a higher rate which increases as water becomes scarcer. The tariff increase subsidises water for other users, whilst also ensuring the system is economically stable. A case study suggests that the tariff could cut water consumption in the city of Valencia by up to 18%.
Disease-fighting microbes, insect-eating predators and mating-disrupting pheromones are among the tools listed in a new review of methods that can be used to reduce synthetic pesticide use on grapevines in Europe. Using these alternative methods can reduce the environmental and health risks associated with chemical pesticides, but further development is required to make them attractive to growers.
Dietary exposure to neonicotinoid-contaminated plant material poses risk to leaf-shredding invertebrates
Neonicotinoids are pesticides applied to plants to protect them from insects. The use of neonicotinoids may lead to contamination of aquatic environments through, among other routes, the input of contaminated plant material into waterways. While it is well established that direct exposure to contaminated water endangers aquatic invertebrates, scientists have now published findings indicating that dietary exposure through the consumption of contaminated plant material puts leaf-shredding species at increased risk. The researchers recommend that policymakers registering systemic insecticides (those whose active ingredients are transported throughout the plant tissues) consider dietary exposure, and its potential implications for ecosystem integrity, in addition to other exposure pathways.
A new analysis of waste recycling systems in Portugal highlights where kerbside (edge of pavement) collection systems could be optimised, to decrease their environmental impact. In this case, researchers found that the kerbside system was less favourable economically and environmentally due to more packaging and more fuel consumption per tonne of waste, compared to a system where recyclable materials are deposited by residents in large containers. But the researchers suggest that measures such as re-usable boxes and efficient collection routes could help to mitigate the impact of kerbside collection. While there is an environmental impact from waste collection, processing and disposal, this study only focused on the collection phase.
Mercury is a heavy metal that is well known for being the only metal that is liquid at room temperature and normal pressure. It is also a potent neurotoxin with severe global human health impacts. It can be converted from one form to another by natural processes, and, once released, actively cycles in the environment for hundreds to thousands of years before being buried in sediment. This In-Depth Report from Science for Environment Policy summarises the latest scientific studies and research results on mercury pollution in the global environment.
Researchers have developed a new metric to predict the ecological impacts of invasive alien species. The metric was calculated for a number of known invasive alien species and successfully predicted their impact on native species. The tool could be used to help inform the global management of invasive alien species.
A 50% renewable-energy supply, which is both profitable and secure, is possible for the UK’s electricity grid by just 2030 according to a new study. The researchers developed a plan for adapting and operating the UK’s electricity grid, designed to be flexibly controlled through smart-grid technology and to overcome uncertainties in renewable-energy supply and demand.
A new study has mapped levels of chemical elements found in European agricultural soils. In most places, unusually high concentrations are linked to geology, such as high levels of arsenic in the Massif Central in France. Human activity is to blame in some small areas, for example high concentrations of mercury were found near London and Paris. Abnormal concentrations, both too low and too high, could pose an environmental risk. This new data can be used in conjunction with the REACH Regulation1 and can help identify areas where action may be needed in relation to toxic elements in the environment.