To celebrate women who have excelled in science, CHEM Trust sat down with Dr Olwenn V Martin, Lecturer in Global Challenges at Brunel University, London, to discuss her research on chemicals, chemical policy and hopes for future regulation. Building on an academic interdisciplinary background in Natural Sciences and Social Sciences, Dr Martin has expertise in the translation and application of research into policy. Her research is focused on ‘emerging’ issues for the risk assessment of chemical contaminants, such as mixtures and endocrine disruptors.
What inspired you to do research in this area?
Back when I was studying my first degree in Chemistry, I became interested in how science was used by society and by decision makers. I did an industrial placement for a chemicals company that manufactured catalysts for fluid cracking (a process used in oil refineries). It was obvious that the bottom line was to make money. I decided to continue postgraduate studies in environmental decision making. I eventually came back to chemistry through a placement at a sewage treatment works, working on endocrine disrupting chemicals in sewage.
What are the benefits of the interdisciplinary focus you have when researching chemical pollution issues?
One of the benefits of having an interdisciplinary focus in relation to chemical pollution, is the ability to understand where different decision makers are coming from i.e. the chemicals industry, policy makers, and knowing how to communicate in different ways to these stakeholders. If you look at something from only a single disciplinary lens, you can miss the whole picture. The environmental issues we face are wicked problems: they are social issues and governance issues as well as environmental issues, and an interdisciplinary lens is crucial to understanding and tackling them.
You have done research on exposure to chemical mixtures, what are the main challenges here?
We are exposed to hundreds, if not thousands of chemicals in our daily lives whose negative effects can amplify each other. I get asked as an academic about what individuals can do about their exposure, but there is no way to control all these risks. I have worked on dietary exposure to mixtures of chemicals, and my answer here tends to be to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients. In doing so you can minimise your exposure to chemicals used in the processing of food and those that migrate into food from packaging. The co-benefit of this is that these meals tend to be lower in added salt and sugar, also having further health benefits. The main responsibility should lie with the decision makers and chemicals companies who are more powerful in reducing the risks than individuals.
What would you want to be different in your work with science-policy?
Communication is a key issue in relation to chemical regulation. The risk with simplifying messages to the public around the way chemicals are managed, assessed and the pollution that they cause is that you can be accused of scaremongering. Equally, if a chemical company says they have ‘tested’ a product for safety, there are so many ways the tests could poorly capture an assessment of the risk. What effects did they test for, for example? There is a lot of work to be done with the public to understand these levels of complexity. Whether or not they have the bandwidth to engage with this is another issue. People are used to living in a system that they believe is safe and trust in institutions. It is important not to damage this trust.
What hopes do you have for the future of chemicals regulation?
There are finally some good policy changes in relation to chemical mixtures in the EU. The EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability is also hugely ambitious which is very welcome. How it is implemented will be key and involves long, hard negotiations, but this should help set the scene globally for world leading policy. I am also convinced of the need for international action that can deal with the intersectionality of issues relating to chemicals. Chemicals intersect with all of the Sustainable Development Goals. For example, they have a close connection with gender parity with occupational exposures affecting men and women differently.
For a long time, issues relating to chemicals have been overlooked. Now things are slowly changing, chemical pollution has been declared as having already transgressed one of the nine planetary boundaries and the understanding of the chemicals industry as underpinning most industries and economies across the world is being more widely understood. I see it as positive that a new international panel on chemicals and waste is being discussed and the news that came out of the United Nations Environment Assembly conference last week on a legally binding plastics treaty is also encouraging.
CHEM Trust is grateful to Dr Olwenn V Martin for agreeing to share her insight on her research into chemicals on International Women’s Day.
The above was adapted from an interview.