One healthy planet – using chemicals sustainably

Millions of chemical compounds around the world are of anthropogenic origin or altered by anthropogenic activities, several hundred thousand of which are used to provide services, whether as pharmaceuticals, household chemicals, or fertilizers. While these services are wanted, chemicals can also have an undesirable impact on people and the environment. For example, it is estimated that 16 percent of all premature deaths worldwide are attributable to environmental pollution from chemicals of anthropogenic origin.

We examine the effects of chemicals on ecosystems and human health. For this purpose, our researchers look at all the chemicals and environmental factors to which individuals are exposed throughout their lives: environmental conditions produced by chemicals in the air, in water, or in food as well as components produced in organisms in response to stress factors. This integrative perspective is referred to as the exposome.

How are chemicals transformed and broken down in the environment and in people? Which substances are so long-lived that they can be detected and accumulate in animals and humans? What harmful biological effects can be triggered by chemicals, and how can the impact of chemicals be predicted? We develop a wide range of techniques in order to provide answers to these questions. For example, we want to use chemical-analytical methods that can detect many chemicals simultaneously and help to assess their properties, such as to explore how chemicals interact with bacterial communities in the intestine. We are developing tools from in vitro cell models to ecotoxicological tests on ecosystem level in order to prospectively assess effects of chemicals in the environment. To do this, we use laboratory models, but also observe different organisms in the environment, such as insect larvae or algae in water bodies. In addition, we study pollutants in water, in environmental organisms, and in human blood with the aim of providing early warnings against adverse effects that chemical cocktails may show.

The aim of our research is to innovate approaches for prognostic risk assessment of chemicals and for evaluating environmental quality. We make this knowledge accessible to promote a more sustainable chemistry and to support the monitoring and management of chemicals.

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“Our mission is to work towards a healthy environment that is minimally compromised by chemical pollution and safeguards health and well-being of people.”

Beate Escher, Rolf Altenburger, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ

E-Mails: rolf.altenburger(at) / beate.escher(at)

Topic-Support: Michaela Hein, UFZ