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Research Unit

Chemicals in the Environment


Chemicals will be developed in the future in such a way that they no longer pose a threat to human health or the environment.

To achieve this goal we have to adopt a new way of assessing the hazards of chemicals – that is to no longer examine individual substances with selected test organisms, but to look at diverse forms of chemical contamination that have different impacts in the real environment on different ecosystems, species communities and organisms. The risk assessment of chemicals in the future must therefore be an integrated assessment that combines ecotoxicology with human toxicology.


Our society develops, produces, uses and disperses a diverse and vast amount of chemicals – this is not just a current trend but one that is expected to continue into the future. These chemicals are in the form of raw materials, compounds and products and are believed to improve our standard of living.

The material world is shaped by chemical cocktails composed of diverse molecules.

The material world is shaped by many diverse products ‒ all containing various components – virtually chemical cock-tails. However, these “cocktails” have the potential to critically harm our environment and humans because chemicals are being distributed extensively in the environment through the increasing recirculation of water, the growing demand for agricultural land or the worldwide growth in prosperity and demand for natural resources. The hazards of chemical substances to humans and the environment has been an on - going topic for decades. Time and time again, individual substances become the focus of public debates or make the headlines. The current approach that is used to assess the hazard potential of chemicals is based on individual substances. However, we need to bear in mind that in reality we are faced with complex mixtures whose composition changes in time and space.


Given these challenges, what should an integrated assessment approach look like? How can we succeed in developing a better understanding of the processes controlling retention levels, chemical transformation or biodegradation and the effects of chemicals under real environmental conditions? How can the (bio) transformation of pollutants be measured in the environment? Which role do ecosystem services play? Can model systems be developed that enable the effects of chemicals to be accurately assessed for different organisms? How can the effect of chemical mixtures and their impacts be predicted? Will there be substances in the future with a “built - in expiry date”?

Scientists of the Research Unit “chemicals in the environment” are pursuing three goals to achieve the goal that chemicals will no longer pose a danger to humans or the environment. First of all they are trying to understand the transformation of chemicals in the environment as a characteristic of the system. Secondly, they want to undertake integrated assessments of the impacts of chemicals on humans and the environment. Thirdly, the biological effect in particular – not the chemical concentration – is to be understood as a measure. With these goals in mind, researchers are systematically analysing and projecting the degradation and retention rates of chemicals (the dynamics of matter) and the impacts of chemicals on biological and ecological systems. They are qualitatively and quantitatively recording the ecosystem service “chemical degradation” and want to predict, assess and manage it to the landscape level. They are analysing the overall impact on human health and the environment and developing concepts to assess these impacts. Lastly, they are using concrete case studies to identify key molecular and ecosystem processes that affect the impacts and degradation of chemicals, leading to technical, social and regulatory solutions for an improved chemical management. With this novel approach to assessing chemicals, the researchers in this thematic area want to promote precautionary principles and preventative measures in order to avoid the need for remediation later on.

We want to promote the development of green chemistry.

With new observation methods, measuring techniques and models at hand, scientists strive to enable forecasts and an early identification of critical contamination and harmful effects on humans and ecosystems. This knowledge will enable new approaches for risk assessment to be developed. They are developing procedures whereby the drivers of chemical risks can be identified in complex chemical mixtu-res or in scenarios with a multitude of other stress factors. They are making fine adjustments, to make sure that the degradation of chemicals in technical or natural ecosystems to the landscape level can be purposefully controlled or an unwanted discharge of chemicals avoided. Furthermore, they define the criteria, by which the carrying capacities of ecosystems can be assessed and the development of “green chemistry” can be promoted.

The expertise and the portfolio of tools range from chemical analysis and bioanalytical methods to isotope - based methods and research on the degradation of chemicals, as well as technical solutions for pollutant retention or degradation and human - toxicology model systems to observation, experimentation and modelling systems that are internationally competitive.

Big data sets and information about cells, genes, proteins and metabolites are to be managed and made available.

For example, the high - tech laboratory ProVis allows us to observe chemical and biological processes on the cellular level. Furthermore, the CITEpro analytical and bioanalytical platform enables a high - throughput screening of chemicals and environmental samples. MetaPro – a central bioinformatics and omics platform – will make it possible to qualitatively and quantitatively manage the big data sets and information about cells, genes, proteins and metabolites and make this information accessible. Molecular biology tools are applied to shed some light on endogenous changes in response to chemical contamination and help interpret data from epidemiological studies, cohorts of patients and field surveys.

To implement this new approach to chemical assessments and treatments, ecotoxicologists and health researchers have joined forces with environmental chemists, environmental microbiologists and technologists. Research co - operation takes place with European, international and national partners in the form of research alliances, collaborative projects and scientific communities. The European project SOLUTIONS, for example, wants to provide solutions for present and future emerging pollutants in water resources in a close dialogue with stakeholders. On the regional level for example a strategic co - operation has been set up with the University of Leipzig to establish one of the largest child cohort studies in Germany (and in Europe for that matter) ‒ the LIFE child study, which focuses on the exposure of children to environmental factors.

A close information exchange with national and international committees, authorities and institutions that are responsible for assessing chemicals, is a prerequisite for transferring knowledge and results into practice. The broad spectrum of professional knowledge in system-, cell and ecotoxicology, epigenetics and molecular systems biology as well as unique analytical and bioanalytical facilities make the UFZ a sought - after partner and expert for the scientific community, the authorities and the chemical industry. The German Environment Agency (UBA), the Federal Institute for Risk Assess-ment (BfR), the Institute for Environment and Sustainability (IES) of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency EPA in the USA are all important strategic partners in the field of environmental research on chemicals.