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News Archive » Risk assessment

Here you will find all articles that have been published in the weekly Science for Environment Policy News Alert.

Browse archives by year and theme below.

Historical analysis shows that recent flooding in Europe is exceptional and may be related to climate change

Researchers have analysed nearly 10 000 river floods in Europe in the past 500 years and have shown that recent patterns of flooding are exceptional in extent. In addition, previous flood-rich periods are often linked to cooler average temperatures, but today’s flooding takes place in the context of warmer air and ocean temperatures. The findings showed that flooding has been extreme in terms of extent, air temperatures and season.

Towards reliable risk assessment for nanomaterials - evaluating the ecotoxicology of graphene oxide

Nanomaterials such as graphene oxide (GO) have potential for a myriad of industrial applications due to their physical, chemical, mechanical and structural properties. However, due to these unique attributes, assessing the toxicity of GO - necessary to meet relevant regulatory requirements - remains challenging. A study now seeks a robust, reliable methodology for evaluating the ecotoxicity of GO, using an alga (Raphidocelis subcapitata) and a shrimp species (Paratya australiensis) to evaluate exposure risk.

Seascape management: study identifies key sites for eelgrass conservation in northwest Sweden

Using eelgrass (Zostera marina) as a case study, researchers in Sweden have presented a new approach to help target conservation efforts for optimal effect. Combining insights from biophysical modelling and genetic analysis, they depict populations as an interconnected network and identify which parts of this network are most important to the survival of the regional population (and should be prioritised for protection). This approach could inform seascape management and designation of marine protected areas (MPAs) across Europe.

Landscape features of European ash tree populations increase resilience against dieback disease

Ash dieback disease, caused by an invasive fungal pathogen, was introduced into Europe via Poland in the 1990s, and reached France in 2008. The disease causes leaf infections, shoot blight and ‘collar cankers’ — damage at the base of the trunk — eventually killing the tree. A study investigates how landscape features impacted the spread of the disease in north-eastern France, in order to inform future management decisions and efforts to limit its spread.

Machine learning models can accurately map regional susceptibility to landslides

As the global population grows, humans are increasingly occupying areas prone to natural hazards such as landslides, which threaten lives and property. Protecting against landslides requires more accurate mapping of vulnerable regions. A new study develops a model for landslide susceptibility based upon artificial neural networks (ANNs). The researchers train four groups of models with different configurations and compare the accuracy of their predictions to landslide scarring in Brazil from 2017.

New open-source model offers accessible method to estimate windstorm damage

A study presents an open-source model for estimating the extent and impact of windstorm damage in Europe. Unlike others, the model relies not on insurance data but on data that is publicly available, and, therefore, offers a useful and accessible tool for predicting risk and performing post- disaster assessment. The researchers apply it to storms that have taken place in western Europe, highlighting the most vulnerable countries and coastal areas.

Research and policy may need to prioritise in efforts to protect biodiversity and ensure food security, finds study

To best protect ecosystems and human well-being, there is a need to prioritise how the scarce resources of time, funding and human labour should be allocated to be most effective. This study applies a prioritisation framework to 16 prominent environmental challenges in the areas of biodiversity and food security, based on three criteria: importance (scale), neglect (lack of research) and tractability (e.g. economic feasibility).

How do subsea cables affect electromagnetic-sensitive marine species?

Anthropogenic activity is changing the natural electromagnetic environment. This may impact many marine species that have adapted to use electric and magnetic cues in essential aspects of their life cycle. The installation of underwater cables in coastal and offshore waters, to support offshore generation of renewable energy and transmission networks, is increasing globally. These cables emit electromagnetic fields (EMFs) that can interact with natural geomagnetic EMFs, potentially disrupting cues used by electromagnetic-sensitive species. A recent interdisciplinary study explored how two such marine species, the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea) and the American lobster (Homarus americanus), react in the presence of a real subsea EMF-emitting cable.

Pollinators: importance for nature and human well-being

Pollinators are vital to our well-being and the survival of nature. We are at risk of losing their benefits, and many others, with the ongoing and dramatic decline of pollinators witnessed around the world. Our Future Brief presents an overview of research into the importance of pollinators for nature, food production and security, while our video presents interviews with pollinator, insect and citizen science monitoring experts, and highlights the important role of taxonomists in protecting pollinators.

The route to sustainable, cost-effective soil remediation: protecting soil quality at a contaminated site in Sweden

Human activity is increasingly impacting soil on a global scale, introducing contaminants into soil ecosystems and degrading their quality and ability to provide valuable ecosystem services. A study now compares two different approaches to ecological risk assessment (ERA) of soil contamination — one based on laboratory-derived soil quality standards, and another that accounts for a wider range of soil qualities essential for soil biota (beyond those purely related to contamination). The researchers assess the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the differing remediation actions supported by each ERA approach.

Researchers use advanced techniques to characterise chemicals found in everyday plastics

Researchers used advanced techniques to analyse 34 widely used consumer products made from eight different plastics — including packaging such as refillable water bottles and products such as table mats and floor covering. They extracted samples of the plastics and evaluated their toxicity with cell culture tests in the laboratory. They found that up to 74% of everyday plastic items contained chemicals which induced toxicity in the tests. The extraction method used by the researchers reflects the content of those chemicals in the plastic and does not represent the migration of chemicals from plastics into the food.

Sixteen-year reduction in levels of toxic PAHs in the Elbe River, Saxony

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a large group of toxic molecules produced by forest fires, industrial processes and the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. The airborne particles containing these molecules are often washed into watercourses, where they can persist. This study uses long-term monitoring data from the Elbe river, Saxony, Germany, to show how changes in PAH sources affect both the concentrations of these chemicals and the corresponding environmental risks. The researchers suggest that controlling PAHs is the best prevention of harm to aquatic and human health.

Alien invasions are rising: study shows location- level factors are the main drivers of success for invading bird species worldwide

Invasions of alien species are rising at an alarming rate, largely due to growing global trade and transport routes. Preventing the successful establishment of alien species by better understanding the factors determining success is a step toward limiting the threat of future biological invasions. Statistical modelling using observed bird invasion data — including location, event and species-level factors showed which factors were key to successful establishment by the alien species.

Groundwater protection: first voluntary initiative to develop a pollutant watch list

Over the past two decades, concern has grown globally about the occurrence of anthropogenic organic contaminants in the environment, such as substances used in pharmaceuticals, food production and manufacturing. Many of these compounds are not sufficiently monitored or regulated in groundwater — a critical water resource in Europe. A recent paper proposes an approach to developing the first voluntary Groundwater Watch List (GWWL): an initiative with which to identify, monitor, and characterise substances that have the greatest potential to pollute this water resource.

Mussel study determines risk posed by rare earth metals to marine environments

Rare earth elements (REEs) are used increasingly often in innovative technologies, causing these elements to enter the natural environment. They can be sourced via deep-sea mining, raising concerns about marine exposure to mining processes and waste products. This study examined how two REEs, lanthanum and yttrium, affected and stressed marine ecosystems, using young marine mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis) as indicators of water quality. The researchers determine a parameter known as the ‘predicted no effect concentration’ (PNEC) for La and Y — the maximum environmental level of each of the two elements at which no effect is seen on the most sensitive organisms and which is, therefore, deemed safe for the environment.

River flooding: area simultaneously affected in EU has grown by 50% in past 50 years

River flooding costs billions of euros annually in the EU. When one river floods, others nearby often do so at the same time — extending the overall impact beyond the border of an individual drainage basin. With this in mind, this study analysed the spatial extent of flood events across Europe from 1960 to 2010, using data from the European Flood Database (EFD). The research presents key findings for flood forecasting, risk financing and flood-mitigation policy.

Wildfires destroy protective effect of forest roots on soils

Forest root systems increase soil strength and stability, thus protecting mountainous regions against gravitational natural hazards, such as landslides. However, tree roots are affected by factors such as soil properties, climate and disturbances, such as timber-harvesting or wildfire — and, as a result, a forest’s stabilising effect can vary greatly. This study of fire-disturbed beech forests explores how this effect changes over time. The results reveal that forests which have suffered moderate and severe wildfires completely lose their protective function within 15 years, placing those regions at high risk of landslide for up to 50 years after the fires.

Environmental and safety concerns raised over POP alternative PFO4DA

A new study has raised safety concerns over PFO4DA, a substance increasingly used as a substitute for PFOA, a harmful persistent organic pollutant (POP), in plastic production. PFO4DA was found to cause liver damage to mice in lab tests, and is also an environmental pollutant. The researchers caution that it may not be a suitable alternative to PFOA.

A new approach: Assessing the vulnerability of critical raw materials in the automotive industry

In the automobile industry, the development and manufacture of increasingly complex technological components — catalytic converters, LEDs, electric motors, batteries — requires increasingly complex and diverse raw materials with specific qualities. The technological and economic importance of these materials, combined with their vulnerability to supply shortages and likelihood of supply interruptions, indicates their ‘criticality’. This study uses a new methodology to explore the criticality of 27 key metals used in the automotive industry and other sectors, and highlights six that are especially vulnerable: rhodium, dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and praseodymium. The researchers found there was limited recycling and substitution of these metals and a high possibility of restrictions to their supply.

Swiss environmental impact exceeds its share of planetary boundaries

In order to manage its environmental footprint, Switzerland should act on a number of key issues identified by the ‘planetary boundaries’ framework, says a Swiss study, with priority given to the areas of climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and nitrogen loss. This quantitative framework identifies nine bio-physical limits of the Earth system that, if exceeded, may lead to societal and ecological changes unfavourable to human development and stability. These are upper thresholds rather than targets. The researchers suggest that the concept and their methodology could be used together to think differently about environmental issues, and change the way related assessments and policies are implemented at both global and national levels.

Evaluating the sublethal effects of insecticides for effective integrated pest management

Parasitoid wasps (Trichogramma pretiosum) are increasingly being used as a biological control agent in agriculture. Since insecticides are often applied to the same crops, it is necessary to assess the effects of different insecticides on this insect. However, the majority of studies have focused on evaluating the lethal, but not sublethal, effects of insecticides. A new study has evaluated the sublethal effects on T. pretiosum of nine insecticides commonly used in soybean production in Brazil. Overall, just three of the nine insecticides tested did not appear to have any harmful sublethal effects on T. pretiosum. This study highlights the importance of considering sublethal, as well as lethal, effects when assessing insecticide selectivity.

New research suggests that alternatives to legacy PFASs may be no safer

PFASs — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a family of chemicals used in a wide range of industrial and consumer applications. Due to concerns about their persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity, long-chain PFASs are increasingly being phased out, creating a growing market for alternatives. Researchers have developed a novel method, based on molecular simulation techniques, to estimate the rate at which novel PFASs interact and bind with particular proteins (‘binding affinity’) — an important factor in determining a substance’s bioaccumulation potential in organisms. The method indicates that replacement PFASs may be just as bioaccumulative as original (legacy) PFASs and are, therefore, not necessarily safer. If correct, this finding has significant policy implications.

Predicting and controlling the spread of the invasive pine wood worm pest across Europe

The North American pine wood nematode (PWN), Bursaphelenchus xylophilus, is a pest worm species that causes a disease known as pine wilt. It was discovered for the first time in the EU in Portuguese forests in 1999. Today, the entire territory of Portugal is demarcated for the presence of PWN, with a 20 km buffer zone, free from the pest, established along the Spanish border with the aim of preventing its further spread. The spread and establishment of PWN in the rest of EU territory is very likely if no strict measures are taken, as required by Decision 2012/535/EU of the European Commission, with serious economic and environmental consequences. To date, Spain has experienced five outbreaks of PWN, three of which have been successfully eradicated thanks to the EU measures and the effective work of the Spanish forest administration; and two outbreaks are currently being eradicated.

How big a threat do invasive alien species pose to European biodiversity? A ranking of species for urgent risk assessment

Invasive alien species (IAS) pose a threat to native European biodiversity and cost the EU annual damages worth EUR 12 billion as a result of IAS effects on human health, damaged infrastructure, and agricultural losses. IAS are the focus of Target 9 of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and Target 5 of the EU Biodiversity Strategy: ‘By 2020, IAS and their pathways are identified and prioritised… pathways are managed to prevent the introduction and establishment of new IAS.’ The EU framework for action against IAS is set out in a Regulation adopted in 2014. This provides for the adoption of a list of IAS of Union concern that will be subject to restrictions across the EU. The first step in order to consider a species for listing is to undertake a risk assessment.

How can risks from nanotechnology be managed? Researchers recommend global framework

Currently laws and regulations governing nanotechnology are fragmented and do not take account of the unique properties of nanomaterials, the effect of which on humans and the environment are not yet fully understood, argue researchers in a new study. In the study, a network of European researchers propose a new universal regulatory framework that deals specifically with nanomaterials. The framework should help policymakers, organisations and researchers evaluate the risks of any existing materials and new nanomaterials entering the market. It should also help SMEs and large companies use safer products and processes, limit the potential adverse effects of nanomaterials on workers and consumers, reduce the cost of insurance and reduce the risk of governments having to pay out money in the future due to unforeseen accidents or diseases.

Identifying valid surrogates for amphibians and reptiles in pesticide toxicity assessment

Environmental pollution is putting amphibians and reptiles at risk, yet these animals are not included in regulations regarding the environmental risk assessment (ERA) of pesticides. The extent to which other species already used in pesticide toxicity assessment (including fish, birds and mammals) can serve as effective surrogates is currently under debate. This study conducts a systematic review of the available literature. The results reveal a positive correlation between toxicity recorded on fish and aquatic amphibians, but indicate that birds and mammals are generally not good surrogates for reptiles and terrestrial amphibians. Moreover, some chemical-dependent trends were detected, with a number of insecticides found to be more toxic to amphibians or reptiles than to potential surrogates. These findings highlight an urgent need for further research to reduce uncertainties and contribute to future policymaking regarding the protection of amphibians and reptiles from potentially harmful pesticides.

Disinfection by-products in drinking water: new detector may meet need for monitoring and detection of broader range of DBP classes, Sweden

The presence of disinfection by-products (DBPs) in drinking water is an emerging health concern. DBPs come in many classes and are chemically diverse, making them challenging to monitor. Swedish researchers have evaluated a new method for the simultaneous determination of a broader range of DBPs than typically possible using other available techniques. The method uses gas chromatography (a laboratory technique that separates and analyses vaporisable compounds in a mixture), together with a halogen-specific detector (XSD). Having been tested in real water samples from two municipal waterworks in Sweden, the method has been optimised for the simultaneous determination of a wide range of neutral DBPs.

How to prevent alien plant invasions in the global ornamental horticulture trade?

Alien plant invasions can have significant environmental, ecosystem and economic implications. Since ornamental horticulture is the primary pathway for invasive alien plant introductions, it is a suitable focus for prevention policies. A recent review of published evidence has examined the effectiveness of four major instruments: pre-border import restrictions, post-border sales bans, industry codes of conduct, and consumer education. The study highlights that, while each instrument has the potential to contribute to a reduction in plant invasion risk, none is sufficient to achieve this goal alone. The researchers, therefore, describe how the four instruments can be integrated along the ornamental horticulture industry supply chain to reduce risk more effectively, and outlines the role that government, industry and other stakeholders must play to achieve this goal.

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.

Changes that occur to nanoparticles in the environment are key to understanding their impact

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.

Scientists calculate risks of further earthquakes from gas drilling in Groningen, the Netherlands

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.

Putting risk analysis and technology assessment (RATA) into practice to support technology development

Risk analysis and technology assessment (RATA) involves assessing the possible human, environmental and societal risks of a novel technology at various stages of the development process. However, best practices for RATA’s successful incorporation into large-scale research programmes are still in development. In a recent study, researchers present a case study of their efforts to bring RATA into practice within a large Dutch nanotechnology consortium. By outlining the procedures and products they developed and reflecting on their experiences, the researchers provide valuable insights for the future integration of RATA in technology development projects. The findings are relevant to stakeholders with an interest in supporting the design of key enabling technologies, including governmental agencies and industrial partners.

Bridging the gap between academic research and regulatory assessment of chemicals: a how-to guide

According to most EU legislation, regulatory assessment of chemicals should make use of all available and relevant studies. However, in practice, assessments tend to be predominantly based on research sponsored and provided by industry as part of their legal obligations to show safety of their products, rather than on independent peer-reviewed findings. To bridge this science–policy gap, a team of Swedish researchers, in combination with regulators at three Swedish governmental agencies, have published a list of recommendations aimed at increasing the regulatory usability and impact of academic research. This advice is aimed at researchers, for whom it clarifies relevant regulatory data requirements and quality criteria. However, it is also relevant to policymakers, in that it highlights the advantages and availability of relevant, reliable peer-reviewed research for use in the regulatory assessment of chemicals. The study’s recommendations contribute to the formulation of more science-based, sustainable policies.

Incinerating nano-enabled thermoplastics linked to increased PAH emissions and toxicity

Advances in nanotechnology mean that a rapidly increasing number of products are being produced using engineered nanomaterials, for example, nano-enabled thermoplastics. Many of these nano-enabled products are destined to reach their end-of-life through waste incineration or accidental fire. Now, an original study has revealed that the presence of nanofiller in thermoplastics significantly enhances both the concentration and toxicity of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) produced during thermal decomposition at the product’s end- of-life, resulting in concentrations of total PAHs and more toxic PAHs that are up to eight times higher than those found in pure (non nano-enabled) thermoplastics. This finding has significant environmental health implications.

Managing flood risk: more realistic models need to take account of spatial differences

Effective flood-risk management requires accurate risk-analysis models. Conventional analysis approaches, however, are based on the evaluation of spatially homogenous scenarios, which do not account for variation in flooding across a river reach/ region. Since flood events are often spatially heterogeneous (i.e. unevenly distributed), this paves the way for error. Now, scientists have developed a novel framework for risk analysis that accounts for their heterogeneity, and successfully demonstrated the accuracy of the approach by applying it in a proof-of-concept exercise in Vorarlberg, Austria. By facilitating improved prediction and quantification of flood events, this model is likely to inform future flood-risk management and related decision-making.

Clarity needed on environmental impact of plastic waste for evidence-based policy

Plastic waste in the environment presents cause for concern, but scientific understanding of its exact impacts is still in its infancy. A team of Dutch scientists has presented recommendations on how to develop a new assessment method which provides clear, specific evidence on the risks of plastic waste. Once developed, this method could inform scientifically sound policies for managing plastic waste.

Mapping the vulnerability of European cities to climate change

A new study has assessed the vulnerability of 571 European cities to heatwaves, droughts and flooding caused by climate change. The causes of vulnerability differ across Europe and the researchers say the results could be used to design policies to mitigate the impacts.

Are concentrations of certain critical metals and metalloids increasing in the environment due to their use in new technologies?

A recent study has assessed the environmental impact of a group of technology-critical elements (TCEs) — niobium (Nb), tantalum (Ta), gallium (Ga), indium (In), germanium (Ge) and tellurium (Te) — that, to date, have been relatively under-researched. The researchers reviewed published concentrations of these elements in environmental archives and evaluated trends over time in surface waters. Overall, they found no evidence that the rising use of these elements in modern technologies is causing environmental concentrations to increase on a global level. These findings are relevant to future policy discussions regarding the source, usage and presence of less-studied TCEs, particularly in relation to critical raw metals.

Study investigates attitudes of soil-remediation experts to phytoremediation

An investigation into the attitudes of Canadian soil-remediation experts has shown that they tend to prefer conventional remediation methods over phytoremediation — which relies on plants to clean soils — despite evidence that the latter can have advantages. The researchers behind the study highlight that this ‘status-quo bias’ poses a barrier to the uptake of novel technologies such as phytoremediation, and that scientists may need to find different ways of disseminating evidence to increase the use of new techniques among practitioners.

OFFICAIR project finds seasonal variation in indoor air quality in modern office buildings

A new study aimed at increasing knowledge of indoor air quality (IAQ) in recently built or refurbished office buildings has found that levels of pollutants are mostly within World Health Organization (WHO) air-quality guidelines, however they vary between seasons. In addition, some levels of particulate matter were found to exceed WHO guideline values. The OFFICAIR project was funded by the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme.

Waste-water analysis highlights exposure to endocrine-disrupting phthalate plasticisers

Researchers in Spain have analysed waste water to calculate levels of exposure to phthalates in individuals. The calculations showed that levels of four types of phthalate exceeded safe daily limits in some of the sites studied, with levels of exposure in children being of particular concern. Using the results of waste-water analysis in this way can identify areas where action may need to be taken to lower exposure.

Relative environmental impact of nanosilver in products may be marginal compared with impacts of other components

A new study has analysed the environmental impact of 15 products containing nanosilver, highlighting the contribution of this novel material to the items’ overall environmental burden. The findings show that nanosilver impacts, such as fossil fuel depletion and human-health impacts, are relative to content, and can be marginal when considered in the context of the product’s other materials. Based on their results, the researchers recommend considering the overall impacts and benefits of nano-enabled products in evaluation and environmental guidance on their development.

Three-quarters of all human releases of mercury have occurred since 1850

A new study has, for the first time, estimated total anthropogenic releases of mercury over the last 4 000 years, up to 2010. Overall, the study estimates that a total of 1 540 000 tonnes of mercury have been released; three-quarters of this since 1850, and 78 times more than was released through natural causes over this period. Therefore, human activity has been responsible for a significant level of contamination, and this inventory can be used to inform and assess mitigation measures. The publication coincides with the ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, and the new EU Mercury Regulation1, which prohibits the export, import and manufacturing of mercury-added products, among other measures.

New hazard index tool to aid risk assessment of exposure to multiple chemicals

Evaluating the level of danger to human health from exposure to multiple chemicals in contaminated sites is a complex task. To address this difficulty, researchers have developed a new screening tool that can be incorporated into public health risk assessment, which may include polluted former industrial plants, waste dumps, or even land where pesticides have been used. This ‘hazard index’ approach indicates when risk to health is high, which organs are most affected, and where further evaluation should be conducted in the context of environmental or occupational exposure at such sites.

Risk model suggests nanomaterials could reach toxic levels in San Francisco Bay area

Although nanomaterials are already in widespread use, their risk to the environment is not completely understood. Researchers in the US have developed a next-generation risk-assessment model to better understand nanomaterials’ environmental impact. Applied to the San Francisco Bay area, the model predicted that even soluble nanomaterials could accumulate at toxic levels.

UV water treatment may increase antimicrobial activity of linezolid antibiotic

UV treatment does not always turn hazardous water pollutants into harmless substances. Recent lab tests suggest that the toxicity of the antibiotic linezolid to microorganisms appeared to increase post-treatment. This research did find, however, that UV treatment successfully reduced the antimicrobial activity of four other antibiotics tested, plus four artificial sweeteners.

Visual soil evaluation — a key tool for better management of risks to soils

A new review of the potential uses of visual soil evaluation (VSE) shows how this tool can be used to indicate risks of erosion, compaction, greenhouse gas emission or storage and surface-water run-off. Assessing soils in this way is not only useful for agriculture, but has implications for the wider environment, due to the vital role that soil plays in the provision of ecosystem services, for example as a habitat for biodiversity and as a carbon sink.

Tackling mercury pollution in the EU and worldwide – November 2017

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.

Persistent organic pollutants: towards a POPs-free future – October 2017

The majority of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) identified until now are banned or restricted around the world owing to concerns about their harm to ecosystems and human health. However, this is not the end of the story; even long-banned POPs still linger in the environment; others are still in use and are being directly emitted; and new POPs may be identified for which we have limited information. This Future Brief from Science for Environment Policy presents recent research into POPs’ potential impacts, the levels and future outlook for POPs in the environment and humans, and how we can reduce our use of POPs.

‘Emerging risks’ identified as first of four key stages in a risk cycle

The phrase ‘emerging risk’ has been widely used in scientific and business communities, but without consensus on how to define and govern such a risk. A new study proposes that risk emergence goes through four states, from ‘unknown unknowns’ to risks that are fully in the public domain. Understanding emergence as a process can help decision makers detect and manage risks on the basis of scientific evidence.

Assessing the environmental safety of manufactured nanomaterials – August 2017

Engineering at the nanoscale brings the promise of radical technological development — clean energy, highly effective medicines and space travel. But technology at this scale also brings safety challenges. Nano-sized particles are not inherently more toxic than larger particles, but the effects are complex and vary based on particle properties as well as chemical toxicity. This Report brings together the latest science on environmental safety considerations specific to manufactured nanoscale materials, and some possible implications for policy and research.

GM risk assessments: the importance of in planta studies in the sustainable management of GM plants

Assessments of the effects on organisms likely to come into contact with genetically modified (GM) plants have been reviewed in a recent study. The researchers say such assessments help to understand the potential ecological impacts within the environment and are an important part of the risk assessments for GM plants.

New tool can help predict the impact of invasive alien species on native flora and fauna

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.

Potentially toxic elements in European soils mapped by researchers

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.

Nanomaterial alternatives assessment: a powerful tool for identifying safer options

Judging whether to replace a hazardous conventional chemical in a product with a nanomaterial — i.e. to assess which is the safer alternative — is challenging for many reasons. A new study suggests that chemical-alternative assessment frameworks could be adapted to better assess engineered nanomaterials with the help of new tools which provide data on hazards of, and exposure to, nanomaterials.

Screening tool developed to assess seismic risks from geothermal energy projects

A new screening tool to assess the potential seismic risks (earthquake activity) from deep geothermal energy projects has been outlined in a recent study. The tool provides categories of seismicity risk for projects, which are dependent on factors including geological aspects, as well as social concern and location in relation to urban areas.

New online oil spill risk tool provides local, specific information for coastal managers

A new oil-spill risk-management system has been developed by researchers, which shows the likely effects of a coastal spill on the environment and economic activities for specific locations. It provides maps of oil-spill risk through a web portal and could help decision makers and emergency-response authorities protect the local environment and businesses through targeted and efficient planning and responses.

Environmental hazards due to climate change set to increase in Europe — with regional differences

Researchers have modelled the exposure to multiple hazards across different regions of Europe in relation to heat, cold, drought, wildfire, flooding and wind. The study indicated that, over the next century, environmental hazards are likely to increase, particularly along coastlines and on floodplains, and that south-western Europe is likely to be the worst-hit region.

Nanoparticle release from self-cleaning cement: new study considers how much escapes into the environment, and how

New figures on how much titanium dioxide nanomaterial (TiO2-NM) could be released into the environment from photocatalytic cement — a new type of self-cleaning cement — are presented in a recent study. Based on experimental test results, the researchers estimate that between 0.015% and 0.033% of photocatalytic cement’s TiO2-NM content could potentially escape over several years of cement use, depending on the level of cement porosity. The study could help inform environmental risk assessment of TiO2-NM, as well as safer design of nano-products (i.e. commercialised products incorporating nanomaterials).

Responding to floods in Europe: new framework assesses effectiveness of Flood Emergency Management Systems

A new framework has been developed to assess how effective Flood Emergency Management Systems (FEMS) are in Europe. Examining FEMS in five European countries, this study highlights the strengths and weaknesses of existing systems and makes recommendations for improving their effectiveness, particularly in relation to institutional learning, community preparedness and recovery.

Combinations of veterinary antibiotics may harm algae

Combinations of antibiotics used in veterinary medicine could harm the growth of algal communities when they pass into water bodies from treated livestock, according to recent European research. Algae play vital roles in ecosystems by cycling nutrients and producing energy from photosynthesis; veterinary use of antibiotics should, therefore, be monitored in the environment, including for any biological impacts on algal species, the study recommends.

Oilseed rape genes transfer from inside to outside of crop fields: study could aid GM risk assessment

This study is one of few to assess the genetic diversity of crops in an agroecosystem over several years. Researchers analysed the genetic makeup of oilseed rape plants within and outside crop fields over four years. They found similarity between cultivars of field plants in one year and those of feral plants (unplanted) in the following year. They also found persistence of the cultivars within the feral plants, which suggests that feral populations with genetically modified (GM) traits might result from persistent GM traits within field seed banks. The researchers say their findings could aid impact assessments of GM crops.

European coastal regions at greatest risk from oil spills identified by new risk index

European Atlantic countries are, in general, at higher risk of being affected by oil spills than Mediterranean and Baltic countries, with the United Kingdom most affected, according to new research. The study developed a new risk index for analysing the potential vulnerability of coastal regions to oil spills at sea.

Nanomaterial risk assessment frameworks and tools evaluated

A recent study has evaluated frameworks and tools used in Europe to assess the potential health and environmental risks of manufactured nanomaterials. The study identifies a trend towards tools that provide protocols for conducting experiments, which enable more flexible and efficient hazard testing. Among its conclusions, however, it notes that no existing frameworks meet all the study’s evaluation criteria and calls for a new, more comprehensive framework.

Risk of silver nanoparticles to terrestrial plants is low, but increased by chlorine

Silver nanoparticles are used in a range of household products. This study investigated the risk to plants of these nanoparticles in soil, showing that risk was overall low but increased when soils contained high levels of chlorine. The researchers, therefore, suggest that the risk of silver nanoparticles to plants may increase in salty soils or those irrigated with poor-quality water. These findings could be important for future risk assessments.

Environmental impact investment

Impact investing refers to investments that intend to generate measurable social and/or environmental impacts, as well as a financial return. Often described as ‘doing good while doing well’ it is part of a wider strategy to shift finance towards more sustainable projects. This Future Brief explores research into impact investment, with an emphasis on environmental impact investing in Europe.

Herbicide found in German estuaries, transported to the Baltic Sea

Glyphosate is a widely used herbicide, able to kill a broad range of plants ('weeds') that compete with crops. This study used a validated method to assess its presence in 10 German estuaries that lead to the Baltic Sea. All but one was contaminated with glyphosate, and all were contaminated with its metabolite AMPA. The researchers recommend risk assessments for these chemicals in the Baltic Sea and other marine environments.

Pesticide risk assessments could be made more realistic with ecological scenarios

A method for developing ecological scenarios for assessing pesticides’ risks to aquatic wildlife has been developed. It is based on the selection of vulnerable taxa according to biological trait information, exposure conditions and environmental properties. The method should help decision makers define what to include in ecological models used for future pesticide risk assessments and is proposed as a way to increase the ecological realism of pesticide risk assessment.

Greener cities and more exercise could dramatically reduce urban mortality rates

Researchers have estimated that, annually, almost 3 000 deaths (i.e. 20% of mortality) in Barcelona, Spain, are premature, and would be preventable if residents lived in urban environments that met international exposure recommendations for physical activity, air pollution, noise, heat and access to green spaces. The results emphasise the need to reduce motorised traffic, promote active and public transport, and provide adequate green space to encourage exercise and mitigate the impacts of environmental hazards in cities.

New tool could help optimise governance of flood risk

As the climate becomes more volatile, managing the risk of flooding has never been more important. This study proposes a new framework for evaluating how flood risk is managed by governments, which is applied to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the system in England. The researchers say their approach can help to improve flood-risk governance and could be applied to other countries as well as other types of hazard.

Invasive-species import risk is higher from countries with poor regulation and political instability

The risk of alien species introduction via trade in plants is higher if the plants are from poorly regulated countries with high forest cover, calculates a recent study. For introductions via the vehicle and timber trades, the risk is higher if the exporting country is politically unstable. These findings could help border controls focus their surveillance efforts on imports from countries with risky socioeconomic profiles.

Mussel biomarkers gauge pollution in European estuaries

Coastal areas are under threat of pollution from a variety of marine activities. This study focused on pollution caused by a range of activities with no specific discharge point (diffuse pollution) in three areas — a European harbour, marina and industrial area — by measuring biological responses in mussels. The researchers say biomarkers are useful for assessing diffuse contamination and comparing pollution between sites.

Flooding had major impacts on business and mental health in Germany 2013

Mental health and supply problems, such as loss of electricity, were perceived by residents as the most serious impacts of 2013 flooding in Germany, according to new research. The most frequent effect of the flooding on companies was interruption to their business. The researchers say that focusing on impacts that can be measured in financial terms does not fully describe the effects of flooding, and make recommendations for improving flood data collection.

Environmental impacts of ocean-energy systems: a life-cycle assessment

Ocean-energy technologies — which harvest renewable energy from the sea — will have a significant role to play in a future low-carbon society. A recent life-cycle analysis of different ocean-energy devices has found that life-cycle environmental impacts are caused mainly by the materials used in the mooring, foundations and structures. Improving the efficiency and lifespan of the devices, as well as improving mooring and foundations and deploying devices further out at sea, will help to further reduce the life-cycle environmental impact of ocean-energy systems, according to the study.

Anti-fungal compounds: emerging environmental contaminants

Azole fungicides are active ingredients in a range of pharmaceutical and personal care products, and are also used in agriculture. This study reviewed the sources, presence and risks of these compounds in the environment, finding evidence of toxic effects on aquatic organisms. The researchers provide directions for future research and warn caution should be exercised until more toxicity data becomes available.

New computer modelling tool to identify persistent chemicals

Chemicals that persist in the environment can harm humans and wildlife. This study describes a computer modelling-based approach to predict which chemical compounds are likely to be persistent. The models were correctly able to predict persistence for 11 of 12 chemicals tested and could provide a cost-effective alternative to laboratory testing.

Socioeconomic status and noise and air pollution - September 2016

Lower socioeconomic status is generally associated with poorer health, and both air and noise pollution contribute to a wide range of other factors influencing human health. But do these health inequalities arise because of increased exposure to pollution, increased sensitivity to exposure, increased vulnerabilities, or some combination? This In-depth Report presents evidence on whether people in deprived areas are more affected by air and noise pollution — and suffer greater consequences — than wealthier populations.

Flood risk management has improved in Germany

After the 2002 floods in Germany — the country’s most economically damaging natural hazard — efforts were made to develop a more integrated system of flood management. A recent study has reviewed how those measures helped Germany to cope with the more recent floods of 2013, highlighting developments in early-warning systems and consideration of hazards in urban planning. The researchers also discuss areas for improvement, including citizen engagement and cross-border collaboration.

Synthetic biology and biodiversity

Synthetic biology is an emerging field and industry, with a growing number of applications in the pharmaceutical, chemical, agricultural and energy sectors. While it may propose solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing the environment, such as climate change and scarcity of clean water, the introduction of novel, synthetic organisms may also pose a high risk for natural ecosystems. This future brief outlines the benefits, risks and techniques of these new technologies, and examines some of the ethical and safety issues.

Chemicals risk assessment: Baltic study recommends more monitoring of emerging pollutants

Chemicals are everywhere and new substances are regularly being introduced to the market. However, only some pose a risk to the environment. How do we decide which of them to monitor? A new study using a database of chemicals found in fish in the Baltic Sea has assessed which chemicals are commonly monitored. The researchers suggest that monitoring is biased towards known, already regulated hazardous chemicals, and recommend changes to address other chemicals.

One third of all reptile species in EU at high risk of pesticide exposure

Pesticide exposure can have negative impacts on many species and is a major threat to biodiversity. A new study is one of few to assess the risks specifically for European reptiles. The results suggest that at least one third of European reptile species are at high risk of exposure, with lizards showing the highest sensitivity to pesticides.

Drought management in Europe: researchers present new evaluation method

Droughts can have far-reaching environmental, social and economic impacts. A new study has assessed how drought is managed in six areas of Europe using a new evaluation framework. Their evaluation identified policy gaps and makes recommendations for risk management. A key recommendation is to evaluate responses and management after each drought to identify good practices and strengthen drought management in the future.

Ignoring flood risks leads to increasing losses: assessment should include climate change, land use and economic development

Floods are devastating natural hazards, which can cause loss of life and substantial damage to buildings and other infrastructure. Assessing future flood risk is complicated by the influence of climate change, land-use change and economic development in an area. A study on an Alpine valley suggests that land- use change and urbanisation will affect future flood risk by 2030 more than climate change, but risks can be reduced by adopting low-cost adaptation strategies, such as building restrictions in flood-prone areas and residents taking their own precautions against flooding.

Nanoparticles’ ecological risks: effects on soil microorganisms

Nanotechnology is a key enabling technology predicted to have many societal benefits, but there are also concerns about its risks to the environment. This study reviewed the effects of nanoparticles on soil microorganisms, showing that toxicity depends on the type of particle. The researchers make recommendations for improving environmental risk assessment, including performing experiments in soil and over longer time periods.

Chemicals risk assessment: evidence-evaluation methods analysed for nine EU regulations

The use of two methods to systematise evidence-evaluation methods is reviewed in nine EU regulations dealing with chemicals risk assessment. The majority of frameworks were found to promote the use of ‘weight of evidence’ or ‘systematic review’-style approaches, but the study found a lack of structured, consistent and detailed guidance for these approaches. The researchers recommend this guidance is developed collaboratively by European regulatory agencies and points to best practice for this guidance.

Increasing impact of oestrogen pollution through climate change and population growth

Oestrogens are ‘female’ hormones that can enter the aquatic environment after excretion by humans and animals, causing ‘feminisation’ of male fish. This study carried out a risk assessment for oestrogen-like endocrine disruption in the UK in the 2050s, based on likely changes to the human population, river flows and temperature. The authors found that risk is likely to increase under future conditions and recommend further research to assess whether improving sewage treatment could reduce oestrogen pollution.

Mercury levels exceed safety standards for fish in six European freshwater and estuary sites

Mercury levels in bream (Abramis brama) collected from six European sampling sites from 2007 to 2013 exceeded the Water Framework Directive’s safety limit for fish in all but one site in 2012, a new study discovers. The findings suggest greater efforts need to be made to prevent mercury pollution.

No Net Land Take by 2050? – April 2016

Land and soil are limited natural resources essential to all human life. One of the major environmental challenges facing Europe is an increasing demand for development, which threatens ecosystem services. This Future Brief focuses on how land and soil could be used efficiently to continue to provide these functions and services for generations to come.

Identifying emerging risks for environmental policies

How can we better anticipate environmental changes? In our rapidly changing world, risks occur from ongoing changes (such as those occurring in the climate), to more sudden-onset risks, such as mutating microbial pathogens. This Future Brief explores some of the tools and approaches that can be used to identify emerging risk, including strategic foresight tools, citizen science and state-of-the-art monitoring technologies.

Chemicals applied to fruit after harvesting affect soil microbe function

Wastewaters from fruit-packaging plants may contain preservative chemicals. When spread onto fields, these wastewaters affect the way soil microbes cycle nitrogen, new research has found. Although this may impair crop growth, according to the authors, the results could also lead to the development of new substances that reduce nitrate run-off from agricultural land.

Exposure to BPA derivatives: newer analogues may also have endocrine-disrupting effects

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical that is widespread in the environment. Researchers reviewed and critically discussed the sources and routes of human exposure to chlorinated derivatives (ClxBPA) and alternatives to BPA (BPF, BPS), as well as their metabolism, toxicity and concentrations in human tissues. The researchers suggest BPA alternatives and derivatives may have similar effects, and provide directions for future research.

Egg consumers may be exposed to dioxins above EU limit due to farmyard PCP

Chickens foraging on soils containing environmental pollutants can accumulate these chemicals in their tissues and eggs. This study assessed levels of dioxins in eggs produced in Poland, in some cases finding concentrations several times above the safe EU limit. The researchers identified the source as preservative-treated wood in the chicken coop, which they say is a public health risk.

Climate change and transport: effects of sea-level rise on an English railway line

Climate change will have major consequences for transport networks, especially those located on coastlines. This study assessed the impact of projected sea-level rise on a vulnerable stretch of railway line on the coast of South West England. The authors say their semi-empirical modelling method could provide guidance to policymakers worldwide.

Lake Como contaminated with chemicals banned in the 1970s

Research has found evidence for recent contamination of Lake Como, northern Italy, with chemicals banned in the EU since the 1970s. Levels of DDT and PCBs in sediment, aquatic microorganisms and fish were examined. The results suggest glacial meltwater as a source for renewed DDT contamination and show recent contamination of fish above safe levels. The findings demonstrate the need for continued monitoring of persistent organic pollutants in European waters.

Air quality health impact assessments should use combination of metrics

Health impact assessments (HIAs) provide information on the potential health impacts of policies, and are important for developing regulation on air pollution. In this study, researchers evaluated the metrics currently used in air quality HIAs to provide recommendations for their use in policy.

What do pollinator declines mean for human health?

Human activity is transforming natural systems and endangering the ecosystem services they provide, which has consequences for human health. This study quantified the human health impact of losses to pollination, providing the first global analysis of its kind. The researchers say pollinator declines could increase the global disease burden and recommend increased monitoring of pollinators in at-risk regions, including Eastern and Central Europe.

Under- and over-managing invasive species: what are the acceptable risks and costs?

Monitoring of at-risk sites is important for preventing the arrival and spread of invasive species. However, resources are often insufficient to achieve the level of risk reduction desired by authorities. This study presents a novel framework, based on the ‘acceptable level of risk’ construct, to align needs to reduce risk with available resources.

German soil monitoring programme could assess impacts of GM crops

Effective regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) calls for monitoring of the potential environmental risks. This study explored whether the German permanent soil monitoring programme could be a useful tool for this purpose. The researchers say the programme has potential to monitor the effects of GMOs on local soil communities, but that adaptations would be necessary.

Emissions from 2008–2015 VW diesel vehicles fitted with ‘defeat devices’ linked to 59 premature deaths

In September 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alleged that Volkswagen (VW) violated the US Clean Air Act by fitting ‘defeat devices’ in their light-duty diesel vehicles to falsify the results of emissions tests. According to a study assessing the potential impact of this decision, an extra 59 early deaths in the US are likely to be caused by exposure to PM2.5 and ozone.

Common consumer products contain high levels of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances

Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and its derivatives — linked to health problems in animals — have been found in levels exceeding EU thresholds in some outdoor textiles, leather goods and ski waxes, according to a recent analysis of everyday consumer items. Better quality control in the processing and manufacture of goods coated with the substances is among the recommendations made by researchers to reduce human exposure to these toxic chemicals.

High levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in sediments and fish from the Italian River Po and its Lambro tributary

Researchers have recommended that fish from some sections of the River Po and the River Lambro, one of the Italian River Po tributaries, should not be eaten due to high levels of some endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the river sediments and fish. This recommendation is based on an extensive update regarding pollution levels of such substances in the rivers.

Sea level rise and the impact of salinity on soil invertebrates

Sea level rise may cause soils in coastal regions to become more saline. In a recent study, reproduction in soil invertebrates was impaired in soils containing salt levels below the threshold used currently to define saline soils. The authors recommend community-level studies to further investigate the salt concentrations that are harmful to soil organisms.

Advances in freshwater risk assessment: experiences with Biotic Ligand Models

To assess the risk posed by metals in the aquatic environment, Biotic Ligand Models (BLMs) were developed, and are now considered suitable for use in regulatory risk assessments. This study reviews the advantages of BLMs and BLM-based software tools, providing examples from across the EU, and offers recommendations for their widespread implementation.

Are endocrine disrupting chemicals responsible for downward trends in male fertility?

A growing body of evidence suggests that endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) are contributing to declines in fertility. This case-control study found that EDCs were associated with changes to sex hormones and risk of subfertility in men. The researchers say environmental levels of these chemicals should be reduced to protect male fertility.

Geodiversity should be better integrated into ecosystem assessments

Information about geodiversity — i.e. the variety of the material, non-biological parts of the natural world — could be better used and more integrated in environmental management in the UK, finds new research. The authors examined the inclusion of geodiversity information in UK assessments and identified a number of areas where geoscience knowledge is vital for informing ecosystem management.

Prospects for integrating chemical risk assessment

Chemicals regulation in Europe could be improved through integrated risk assessment, says an EU project. The project team presents a range of perspectives on how the integration of hazard, exposure and socio-economic assessments can be promoted and implemented.

Bridging the gap between life cycle assessments and planetary boundaries: a cross-EU chemical footprint

A methodology for assessing ‘chemical footprints’ has been developed by researchers to evaluate human pressures and the impact of chemicals released by the production and consumption of goods. The study integrates a life-cycle approach with different methodologies, such as those developed in the context of environmental risk assessment and sustainability science, with the aim of assessing the extent to which chemicals impact on ecosystems beyond their ability to recover (i.e. surpass planetary boundaries).

A more comprehensive ecological risk assessment combines existing models

Assessment (ERA), each with different goals. The researchers find that overlaps between the three assessments could be combined to create a more comprehensive form of ERA, usable by regulators and environmental decision makers.

Chemical risk governance in the EU: limits and opportunities to integration and harmonisation

Chemical risk assessment and governance can be integrated and harmonised, but only up to a limit, albeit a variable limit, finds new research. The study’s authors examined the socio-political processes and factors surrounding integrated risk assessment and governance associated with chemicals in the EU. The research suggests there are opportunities for improvement if different views and implications of risk integration are considered through open communication and negotiations.

Risk management: a dynamic approach with real-time assessment of new hazards

New research has combined two different techniques for identifying hazards and assessing risks into a single dynamic risk assessment process. The new approach fills a gap in many current risk assessment techniques as it can be applied throughout the lifetime of a process, not just during its design phase, taking into account new information to update risk assessments and calculations systematically.

Integrating Environmental Risk Assessment – December 2015

Environmental risk assessment is challenging because of the complexity of the physical and ecological systems around us. Natural disasters, the spread of dangerous substances, ecosystem changes leading to food and health security issues, and the emergence of new materials, new events and new knowledge make it essential to update our understanding continually, to be able to identify threats and opportunities for timely action. This Thematic Issue presents some collaborative and integrated paths towards forward-thinking assessment and management of environmental risks.

New method needed to estimate contamination in vegetables

The traditional method for estimating contamination levels of vegetables grown in contaminated soils may not be as reliable as previously thought, a new study finds. A new risk assessment technique showed that the daily intake of cadmium in lettuce grown in soils near Swedish glasswork sites was above the safety threshold for a fifth of the study population.

New map of soil loss by water erosion across Europe

Soil erosion is an important issue in Europe, with consequences for water quality, ecosystem services supply and crop production. In this study, researchers enhanced an existing model to estimate soil loss and create an updated map of soil erosion across the EU. The authors say the tool can simulate the effects of land use changes and management practices and will support effective policy decisions.

The German environmental specimen bank – a blueprint for EU chemicals management?

Environmental specimen banks (ESBs) first emerged in the 1960s and are now essential to environmental management across the globe. ESBs sample and archive environmental specimens and can be used to identify the distributions of chemicals within ecosystems and trace their exposure over time. This study uses the German ESB to illustrate their potential for chemicals monitoring in the EU.

Anti-diabetic drug causes intersex in male fish

Intersex fish, in which male reproductive tissues become ‘feminised’, are increasingly being identified. This effect has traditionally been attributed to birth-control medications. This study exposed fish to a widely prescribed anti-diabetic, metformin. Male fish developed female sexual characteristics and reproductive rate decreased, which suggests that metformin may be a non-traditional endocrine-disrupting compound.

Risk of steep glacier collapse in the Alps will considerably increase due to climate warming

Glaciers are sensitive indicators of climate change. This study focused on hanging glaciers in the French Alps, where warming is increasing the risk of glaciers collapsing. The authors applied a state-of-the-art numerical model to a particularly hazardous glacier in Mont Blanc to simulate how it will respond to climate change. The results suggest the glacier may become unstable in the current century, posing a risk to the inhabitants of the valley below.

Exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: first nationwide survey in Spain

The BIOAMBIENT.ES project is the first human biomonitoring programme to estimate levels of environmental pollutants at national level in Spain. This study reports its findings on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemicals that are ubiquitous in the environment. The results will help to establish reference values, identify highly exposed populations and evaluate effectiveness of policies.

Review of damage-reducing measures for floods

Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of flooding. This study reviewed damage mitigating measures at local, regional and national scales, and suggests that approaches including both spatial planning and private precautionary measures (such as building adaptations) are important for integrated risk management.

New flood simulation tool improves collaboration on flood management

A new tool for flood simulation and visualisation is accessible for both experts and practitioners, allowing them to collaborate better on flood planning and relief. Among other features, the new system includes 3D simulations, rainfall simulation and water flow data.

New method for detecting microplastic particles in fish stomachs

A novel approach for identifying and isolating anthropogenic – including microplastic – particles in fish stomachs has been devised by researchers in Belgium. The new method may enable scientists and policymakers to better assess the presence, quantity and composition of particles ingested by marine life, and improve understanding of the environmental effects of marine plastic pollution.

Tests reveal toxic effects of a broad-spectrum herbicide on aquatic plants

Herbicides in aquatic environments can have negative consequences on local plant life. This study investigated the effects of glyphosate, one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, on a marine plant species. The herbicide caused significant changes to the plant, reducing the number and chlorophyll content of leaves, and high concentrations were lethal. The authors say use of this chemical may be dangerous to plants in estuaries.

Some plants are more sensitive to herbicides during reproductive stages of life cycle

This study assessed the effects of herbicides on non-target plants in Denmark and Canada. The findings showed that some plants are more sensitive to herbicides in the reproductive stages of their life cycle and can experience delays in flowering and reduced seed production. The authors say future ecological assessments should consider reproductive outcomes.

Cloud-based flood risk learning tool engages multiple stakeholders

A pilot cloud-based learning platform that brings together multiple datasets, models and visualisation tools has been developed with the engagement of numerous stakeholders throughout the design process. This tool could lead to informed decisions about flood risk at the local level. These types of tools and frameworks are effective ways of facilitating better decision making.

Mussels: Biomonitoring tools for pharmaceutical pollution in the marine environment?

Pharmaceutical pollution of marine environments has important biological consequences for aquatic organisms. This study investigated the effects on mussels of treatment with environmentally relevant levels of an antidepressant, fluoxetine, and a beta-blocker, propranolol, using biomarkers including DNA damage. The results showed that mussels are most vulnerable to these drugs in combination.

Collecting data to explore the ecological threat of nanomaterials

The overall ecological impact of 10 engineered nanomaterials has been modelled for the first time using toxicity data from multiple living species. These models will allow researchers to assess the effect nanomaterials may have on both ecosystems and people.

Device that emits natural warning calls reduces train-animal collisions

Animal-train collisions are an important cause of animal mortality. This study tested the ability of a device that emits natural warning calls to reduce risk of animals being hit by trains in central Poland. Animals, including roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and brown hare (Lepus europaeus) escaped in most cases. The authors say the device is an effective means of risk reduction as it allows animals to escape train tracks earlier and more often.

Environmental migrants need better human rights protection

A human rights ‘protection gap’ exists for people forced to migrate by environmental stress and climate change, according to researchers. The lack of a legal framework and practices to protect ‘environmental refugees’ stems from the historic and political context of migration issues — and land access rights more broadly — the researchers say in a recently published paper.

Migration in response to environmental change - September 2015

Links between environmental changes and migration are extremely complex. This Thematic Issue presents key pieces of research examining the causes of environmental migration and identifying policy options for Europe in dealing with forced and voluntary relocations. The sources also examine the current state of human rights for environmental migrants and how much evidence currently exists for action at local and regional levels.

The global spread of alien plants

Driven by trade, the spread of alien species is increasing worldwide. This study combined 60 years of trade data with that on biodiversity and climate to model the spread of plant species across 147 countries. The model predicts significant increases in plant invasions in the next 20 years, especially for emerging economies. The authors say trade legislation must consider biological invasion and focus on regions at high risk.

Reducing global particulate matter pollution could save millions of lives

Globally, more than 3.2 million premature deaths per year are attributed to exposure to ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5). A new study estimates that 2.1 million premature deaths could be avoided if countries achieved the WHO guideline for PM2.5. Even meeting their closest WHO interim concentration targets could avoid 750 000 (23%) deaths attributed to PM2.5 per year.

Risk perceptions are essential in communicating about climate change

Experts and members of coastal communities possess both differences and similarities in how they perceive the risks associated with changes in sea level. A new study, based on interviews with both, has found that future communication about the risks should focus on specific adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Reducing avian collisions with wind turbines

Wind is an important renewable energy source for Europe. The wind power capacity installed in 2014 could produce enough electricity to meet over 10% of the EU’s electricity consumption. However, wind power structures can also be harmful to birds, which can collide with turbines. This study assessed methods of reducing avian collisions with wind turbines and makes several practical recommendations.

Global variation in persistent organic pollutants in breast milk

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are priority pollutants that pose a risk to human health, and can be passed on to children via breast milk. This study investigated how concentrations of POPs in breast milk vary worldwide by reviewing studies published between 1995 and 2011. They found that levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins in breast milk are higher in Europe and North America, whereas pesticides are more prevalent in Africa and Asia. The authors call for harmonisation of methodologies to enable high quality comparisons between studies.

Link found between ‘algal blooms’ and liver disease

Cyanobacteria — often referred to as blue-green algae — are found in water bodies around the world and can produce toxins with potential health risks. This US-wide study found a significant positive association between cyanobacterial bloom coverage and death by non-alcoholic liver disease. The researchers say their study suggests some evidence of a potential health risk and should be used to generate further investigation into the health impact of cyanobacteria.

Indicators for more sustainable phosphorus management

Geodiversity describes the diversity of the non-biological parts of the natural world such as rocks, soils, landforms and the processes which shape them over time. New research on how geodiversity information has been used to examine or inform conservation policy has been explored through eight different case studies. The research shows the variety and utility of geodiversity information to support biodiversity protection, both now and in the future.

Dispersants do not increase exposure of cod eggs and larvae to toxins in oil spills

Oil spills at sea can be catastrophic events, with oil and discharged toxins, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, threatening marine wildlife and coastlines, damaging healthy ecosystems and harming livelihoods. A recent study found that using dispersants moderately decreased the number of cod eggs and larvae affected by spills off the Norwegian coast.

Increasing energy efficiency in the home may boost life expectancy and health

Changes in the home that increase energy efficiency, such as improved insulation and ventilation control, have the potential to reduce indoor air pollution. This study assessed the health impact of interventions in the UK arising from changes to indoor concentrations of fine particulate matter and found that such changes could improve health and increase life expectancy for men and women by three and two months, respectively.

Aeration may remove antidepressant drugs from water leaked from landfill

Aeration is an effective means of eliminating antidepressants from landfill leachate, a new study finds. The concentrations of five different drugs were reduced by this treatment process, which could be an effective means of tackling the growing problem of pharmaceutical infiltration into aquatic environments.

Fragmentation of brown trout habitat threatens freshwater pearl mussels in Sweden

The fragmentation of brown trout (Salmo trutta) habitat indirectly affects the threatened freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera), a new study has shown. Dams and weirs, which affect the migration of the fish, also have a knock-on effect on the mussels, because they rely on brown trout during the larval stage of their lives.

Internationally coordinated use of satellites needed for managing floods

Loss of satellites providing rainfall data could have a negative effect on global flood management, according to new research. However, this could be mitigated by improved international co-operation and the use of more modern satellite technology, the authors say. The study examined the consequences for flood management of the loss of four of the existing 10 dedicated rainfall measuring satellites.

Banned contaminants can persist in environment for decades

The contamination of hazardous substances in estuaries can have negative effects on biodiversity. Using experimentally supported indicators, this study analysed the environmental risks posed by 22 different contaminants in UK estuaries and coastal waters, finding that substances banned over 20 years ago continue to persist in the marine environment.

Biodiversity slows spread of pesticide resistance

The ability of organisms to adapt to toxic chemicals like pesticides is essential for their survival, but also an agricultural annoyance. This study shows that interactions between different species can delay the development of pesticide resistance and therefore suggests that biodiversity supports effective pest management.

The social value of flood alleviation

Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and severity of flooding in coming years. For more effective flood alleviation, this study recommends schemes that consider the social impact of floods as well as the economic damages.

Public perceptions of environmental risk: the role of journalists

Science not communicated is said to be science not done, but journalists’ portrayal of scientific findings can sometimes have a negative impact on public perceptions of science and even create false controversy. This study examined how presenting opposing scientific viewpoints affects public perceptions of environmental risk.

Nanocoating on buildings releases potentially toxic particles to the air

Weathering and abrasion are reported to cause titanium dioxide nanoparticles to escape from a self-cleaning coating for buildings. These particles may be toxic to humans and wildlife. The researchers have developed three indicators from the test results to help predict levels of nanoparticle release from these coatings.

Baker’s yeast wastewater has limited effect on groundwater when used for irrigation

Untreated wastewater from the baker’s yeast industry can be used to irrigate crops without negatively affecting the chemical quality of the groundwater beneath, recently published research concludes. Although the wastewater increased concentrations of some groundwater contaminants in an area with a high water table, these levels would not pose a risk to human health even if this water was used for drinking.

Flood strategies could be improved with help of socio-demographic data

Flood management could be improved by including socio-demographic information in the assessment of flood risk, suggests new research. The research combined traditional flood risk assessment with information on the ‘social vulnerability’ of people living in flood risk areas. The results show that there are almost twice as many people of high social vulnerability (e.g. low-income or elderly) in flood risk areas of Rotterdam as low social vulnerability people.

Silver nanoparticles could pose risk to aquatic ecosystems

Silver nanoparticles are toxic to common bacteria at concentrations found in many aquatic environments across the globe, new research has found. Bacteria often form a key part of ecosystems and these impacts may be felt by the entire system, the researchers warn.

How to communicate the risks of population growth?

We need a better understanding of how the public perceive the risks of population growth, a new discussion paper argues. Research into public perceptions of the environmental and social challenges of population growth could guide behavioural-change communications to help limit growth and manage the difficulties. Specific communication issues include how to convey statistical information and the complex impacts of population growth.

Higher rates of damage reported in US shale gas and oil wells than in conventional wells

Over 75 000 regulatory inspection reports for over 32 000 oil and gas production wells drilled in Pennsylvania, US between 2000 and 2012, have been analysed in a recent study. In these reports, the inspectors logged six times as many incidents of damage to the walls of shale gas and oil wells than in wells for conventional oil and gas.

Both traffic noise and air pollution linked to stroke

Road traffic noise and air pollution both increase the risk of having a stroke, recent research from Denmark suggests. The results suggest that traffic noise is more strongly associated with ischaemic stroke, whereas only air pollution appears to be linked with more serious, fatal strokes.

Time spent in traffic has major effect on personal exposure to cancer-causing chemicals

Our lifestyles determine how often we are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals, such as those in traffic emissions and cigarette smoke. A Swedish study reveals how exposure to these chemicals varies from person to person. Among its findings, the amount of time a person spends in traffic or refuelling their car significantly affects how much benzene and butadiene they could inhale.

Greater risk of heart defects for babies born near unconventional gas wells in Colorado

Pregnant women living within 16 km of unconventional gas wells in Colorado, US, are up to 30% more likely to give birth to a baby with a heart defect, new research has found. These findings suggest that more research is needed to understand the potential health impact of natural gas developments, say the researchers.

New tool to assess the ecological impacts of offshore wind turbines

How do offshore wind farms affect marine wildlife? A new study outlines a systematic approach developed for Swedish waters that could also be useful for assessing wind energy impacts on the marine environment more widely.

Fish caught near Second World War chemical munitions' dumps show cellular damage

Thousands of tonnes of chemical warfare agents were dumped into the Baltic Sea after the Second World War. A recent study has shown that fish caught near the dumping grounds show high levels of genetic and cell damage, revealing the long legacy of these toxic substances.

Bathing water disease risk may increase under climate change

Climate change may increase the amount of pathogens entering bathing waters in some areas, finds a new study. The research, carried out in a lagoon in the Baltic Sea, found that, although higher temperatures can reduce microorganism populations, this is likely to be outweighed by contamination due to runoff caused by increased rainfall. The authors are currently developing a system for alerting local authorities and the public to potentially hazardous bathing water.

Disease risk predicted by new climate change adaptation tool

A tool to calculate the risk of food and waterborne diseases under current or future climate change conditions has been presented in a recent study. Free to use, the online tool can help guide climate change adaptation, such as improvements to water management, by estimating the likelihood of contracting four diseases under a range of environmental conditions.

Invasive alien species' impacts on ecosystem services: new tool to assess risks

Researchers have developed a new risk assessment scheme for invasive alien species that not only predicts their direct effects on biodiversity, but also their impacts on ecosystem services. Furthermore, the scheme allows sources of uncertainty in a species’ impact to be identified, and can be applied to a range of different species.

Crayfish plague detection: new techniques tested

Crayfish plague, spread by invasive North American crayfish, is currently devastating native European populations. However, while the disease is commonly diagnosed on the basis of diseased animals, free-living infective spores can contaminate water bodies. In the first study to test detection techniques for this disease in natural waterways, researchers found that invasive signal crayfish release low levels of plague spores, allowing it to spread undetected.

Pesticides responsible for bee poisoning: new screening technique proposed

A technique that can detect the array of pesticides bees might be exposed to has been developed in Poland. The simplicity, speed and small sample sizes required for screening makes this technique an improvement over other methods, say the researchers behind its development.

Underground wastewater disposal in the US linked to increase in earthquakes

The number of earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater in the central and eastern US has increased significantly in recent years, from about 21 a year between 1967 and 2000, to over 300 between 2010 and 2012. Most of this increase seems to be linked to the deep injection of wastewater in underground wells, according to a recent review of seismic activity.

Nutrients in streams can mask toxic effects of pesticides on aquatic life

Moderate levels of nitrogen in streams and rivers can make it difficult to assess the effects of pesticides on aquatic wildlife, because nutrients mask the pesticides' impacts, according to recent research. This highlights the importance of considering nutrient levels when developing measures to protect aquatic ecosystems.

‘Chemical footprint’ in development

A measure of ‘chemical footprint’ is being developed by researchers to assess the environmental impacts of the toxic chemicals released by the production and consumption of goods. The methodology, based on life cycle and risk assessment, is also designed to be linked to the resilience of ecosystems to chemical exposure.

Pesticides may affect all stages of aquatic life

Ecotoxicity tests that are used to understand the impacts of chemical pollutants on aquatic organisms and ecosystems could be improved by including all life stages of the test animals. These are the conclusions of a study by Belgian researchers, who found that the apparent absorption of some pesticides by the dormant eggs of water fleas may have negative effects on the invertebrates' later survival and reproduction, although the development and hatching of the eggs are not affected.