Seminar – Microplastics and other emerging contaminants of concern: Research programmes and their aims

Seminar – Microplastics and other emerging contaminants of concern:  Research programmes and their aims

Presented by: 

  • Dr Louis Tremblay, Environmental Toxicologist, Cawthron Institute and the University of Auckland
  • Dr Olga Pantos, Senior Scientist, Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited
  • Dr Grant Northcott, Director, Northcott Research Consultants Ltd
  • Virginia (Jinny) Baker, Social Scientist, Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited
  • Graham Sevicke-Jones, General Manager, Science and Knowledge Translation, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research

This two and a quarter hour seminar will cover:

  1. Research on Emerging Contaminants in New Zealand – an introduction: Chemicals play a key role in maintaining our lifestyles, but many persist in the environment and can pose ecological and human health risks. Many of the household products and medicines that we use on a daily basis contribute to this issue, as some of these products contain chemicals that can accumulate in our environment. These chemicals are termed “emerging contaminants” (ECs) and can be broadly defined as any synthetic or naturally occurring chemical not commonly monitored that has the potential to enter the environment and impact on human and ecosystem health. The multi-disciplinary approach of the research to assess the risk of ECs will be covered as well as the structure of this programme involving a National Advisory Panel and a newly released National Strategy to Manage ECs.
  2. Aotearoa Impacts Mitigation of Microplastics (AIM2) Project: The term ‘microplastics’ is used to describe small sized plastics including beads, fibres and fragments smaller than 5 mm, and they are recognised globally as a significant environmental pollutant. Microplastics are suspected to be a risk to the health of humans, wildlife and the environment. Initial investigations show Aotearoa-NZ’s coastal, freshwater environments and animals contain microplastics – but we don’t know how widespread they are, and the risks they might pose. The AIM2 project endeavours to address these knowledge gaps and potential solutions to mitigate this pervasive pollutant.
  3. Chemicals in the proverbial haystack: identifying and assessing the environmental risk of emerging organic chemicals and plastic additives in the environment: Emerging organic contaminants (EOCs) are synthetic or naturally occurring organic chemicals that are not commonly monitored in the environment but have the potential to enter the environment and cause known or suspected adverse ecological and/or human health effects. EOCs consist of pharmaceuticals, pesticides, industrial chemicals, surfactants, and personal care products. Many of the industrial chemicals employed as additives in the production of plastic are also classified as EOCs. The key risk EOCs may present lies in the fact that the environmental and human toxicology of most of these compounds have not yet been determined. Determining the risk of EOCs in receiving environments is complicated by the challenge of having to measure potentially tens of thousands of individual chemicals and determine their individual and combined toxicological impacts. This presentation will outline the novel approaches being employed to sample, identify, and determine the biological response of EOCs and plastic additives in New Zealand’s environment, including the use of passive sampling devices, effect or biological activity driven analysis, and non-targeted chemical analysis techniques.
  4. Assessing the risk of Emerging Contaminants and plastic additives: There is a large number of potential ECs entering the receiving environment which makes it is challenging to assess their risk to better manage their use and release. A broad approach is used involving the latest chemical sampling methodologies coupled with bioassays. The use of “omics” methodologies will be discussed as well as the development of protocols for investigating the multi-generational effects of ECs.
  5. Microplastics, their interactions with the microbial world and implications for ecosystem health: Whilst the impacts of plastics on ecosystem health are most commonly associated with physical damage and chemical toxicity of organisms through ingestion, they can also influence ecosystems in a range of other ways. These include the translocation of potential pathogens and the alteration of microbial communities responsible for critical biogeochemical processes that underpin ecosystem function. The current knowledge of the wide-ranging plastic-microbe interactions and potential impacts of plastics will be discussed.
  6. Science, communities and sustainable change: This session introduces the purpose and design of the social cultural research within the two linked projects – the Emerging Contaminants (EC) and the AIM2– Aotearoa Impacts and Mitigation of Microplastics project.  We outline the research design and the transdisciplinary approach, the key case study partnerships, and the aims of building sustainable change.
  7. The NZ strategy on Emerging Contaminants, why it’s needed and what it aims to achieve: Graham has been part of a core group in New Zealand advancing the understanding and knowledge of emerging contaminants (EC) with the development of the New Zealand Emerging Contaminant Strategy that was completed in late 2018. The presentation will outline the strategy and implementation approach. Effectively the strategy exists in three parts: knowledge translation, research direction and leadership. All these three components being essential to enable actions to be taken in response to problems that have or could be emerging.

Q and A will take place once all of the speakers have presented.

About the presenters:

Dr Louis Tremblay:  Louis is an environmental toxicologist in the Coastal and Freshwater Group at the Cawthron Institute and a Senior Lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He is involved in the development of methodologies to characterise the effects of anthropogenic stressors on exposed biota. His research involves assessment of the toxicity of contaminants and complex mixtures, like sewage effluent. Louis’ main area of interest is the characterisation of the mechanisms of toxicity of microcontaminants on key New Zealand species using a range of methodologies like omics.

Dr Olga Pantos:  Olga is a marine biologist with a passion for understanding the impacts of anthropogenic effects on ecosystems and organisms. After completing an undergraduate degree in Marine and Environmental Biology at the University of St Andrews, UK, she went on to do a PhD at the University of Newcastle, UK. This project investigated the microbial communities associated with healthy and diseased reef-building corals. After completing the PhD she moved to San Diego State University for two years, and then to the University of Queensland, where she investigated the impacts of rising sea temperature, eutrophication and ocean acidification on the microbial communities associated with tropical coastal ecosystems, and the subsequent impacts on both ecosystem function and organism health. She moved to New Zealand in 2015 and her research focus changed to looking at the impacts of microplastics, in particular how they affect microbial communities and ecosystem function. She is co-lead of a 5-year MBIE Endeavour Fund project looking at the levels and impacts of microplastics on New Zealand’s marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments, and the investigation of mitigation and microbial remediation options.

Dr Grant Northcott:  Grant is an environmental and analytical chemist and expert on the fate and effects of organic contaminants in the environment. Grant completed his BSc in chemistry at Waikato University and PhD at the Institute of Environmental and Biological Science, Lancaster University, UK. Grant began his career working for NIWA in Hamilton before moving to the UK to complete his PhD, followed by a two year postdoc project funded by Unilever. Grant returned to NZ in 2002 where he worked for HortResearch and subsequently, Plant and Food Research.  Since 2012 Grant has operated his own research consulting business. He leads the contaminant chemistry research within the 5-year MBIE Endeavour Funded Emerging Organic Contaminants research program, provides organic contaminant expertise in ESRs Centre for Integrated Biowaste Research program, and co-leads the 5-year MBIE Endeavour Funded Microplastics Research Program, within which he leads the contaminant chemistry research objective.

Virginia (Jinny) Baker:  Jinny is a social scientist in the Social Systems Group at the Institute for Environmental Science & Research Ltd, (ESR).  Favoured approaches are sociology, systems thinking, and collaborative participatory research.  Jinny’s work supports the social research within the Centre for Integrated Biowaste Research (CIBR), Aotearoa, NZ. This research collaboration provides biophysical and social/cultural science towards better management of human generated wastes and the contaminants they might contain. A key focus is to ensure that multiple viewpoints, especially indigenous knowledge and values, are included in risk assessment and decision-making.

Graham Sevicke-Jones:  Graham has extensive experience of applying science to real-world challenges faced by communities, businesses and government agencies seeking the sustainable use and development of our natural assets in New Zealand. He has deep experience of this from working at four regional councils, and most recently with Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research as General Manager. In Graham’s current role he has a focus on the needs and opportunities for knowledge translation. This is particularly pertinent at this time when the translation of knowledge from science is increasingly demanded and the technologies for this are increasingly available. Graham believes that knowledge translation is not merely the one-way communication of science; it is a two-way process of ensuring stakeholders’ perspectives and needs are understood and our science plays its role fully.  Graham is especially interested in providing the information base to enable community values and aspirations to be realised whilst providing for a resilient and healthy environment.” He recognises the roles of behaviour change, systems thinking, collaborative processes and Mātauranga Māori knowledge system.



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