Toxic or Not? : Investigating Environmental Contaminants
Industrialization and advances in production and crop protection have led to many conveniences that have made Canada a wealthy nation with a high quality of life. The downside to this prosperity has been the release of persistent organic pollutants into the environment, some of which accumulate in humans and wildlife, especially in the Canadian Arctic. While certain of these chemicals are known to cause adverse effects, little is known about the rest.
Ecotoxicologist Dr. John P. Giesy has become one of the world's leading authorities on how chemicals move in the environment and what effects they have on humans and wildlife. In the process, he has developed many of the analytical techniques that are now used to monitor chemicals the environment. As Canada Research Chair in Environmental Toxicology, Giesy is developing and applying methods for the identification and quantification of these chemicals, and determining, through the use of molecular biology and toxicology, the risks they pose to the humans, wildlife, and the environment.
Perfluorinates (PFOS) are one group of chemicals being studied by Giesy. He is measuring their concentrations in the environment and trying to determine whether they are toxic. These chemicals are persistent and wide spread and their "repellent" nature has made them invaluable in the creation of compounds that go into making a range of useful products from microchips and fire-fighting foams to, most famously, 3M's Scotchgard fabric protector (now no longer being made).
The dilemma for scientists is to assess the potential harm of such chemicals so that rational public policy decisions can be made to protect public health and the environment. Giesy sees his role as one that provides the techniques and knowledge that can help government and industry leaders make policy decisions that allow economic development and social empowerment without environmental degradation.