Environmental chemists monitor what is in the air, water, and soil to study how chemicals enter the environment, what affects they have, and how human activity affects the environment. They monitor the source and extent of pollution and contamination, especially compounds that affect human health, and they promote sustainability, conservation, and protection.
Environmental chemists can be involved in analytical testing or new product development in the lab, or work with users of chemicals in the field, and safety and regulatory issues in an office.
On an average day an environmental chemist must be able to understand and use knowledge from other disciplines, including biology, geology, ecology, sedimentology, mineralogy, genetics, soil and water chemistry, hydrology, toxicology, math, and engineering. Because the environment is so complex, environmental chemistry is a very interdisciplinary field, and environmental chemists work with many other kinds of scientists. Most environmental science and protection technicians work for state or local governments or in private consulting firms.
- Are the groundwater and earth beneath industrial and municipal dump sites contaminated with pollutants? If so, how can these sites be remediated?
- What happens to the household chemicals in the cleaners that run down your drain?
- What is the impact of factory carbon emissions on our air quality and climate?
- How can we reduce the amount of waste product from manufacturing and/or turn the waste product into compost, energy, or another useful product?
- What environmental regulations apply, or should apply, to companies?
- How do we keep unwanted pharmaceuticals from contaminating our waterways?
Environmental chemists come from various backgrounds, and there is no one path into the field. However, your college or university may have an ACS-approved chemistry program with an option in environmental chemistry, which is a good starting point. Experienced professionals emphasize the competitive advantage of obtaining advanced degrees. However, because the field is growing so rapidly, opportunities exist for individuals with an associate’s degree. Also, students are encouraged to take courses outside the traditional chemistry curriculum, such as advanced math and engineering courses.
Companies often hire graduates from schools with well-established programs. Employers also look for candidates who demonstrate the ability to broaden their skills and think in an interdisciplinary manner. Coursework in subjects such as biology, geology, hydrology, or toxicology would be indications of such abilities.
The chemical industry employs a large number of environmental chemists to ensure that a given company is in compliance with government regulations. Government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hire chemists for environmental work. In addition, waste management companies and consulting firms employ such chemists to do consulting or remediation work. Colleges and universities are hiring more environmental chemists as they establish programs in environmental chemistry since academic institutions also must satisfy environmental regulations.
Work is often done in an indoor lab environment. However, a riverbed, stream, or field may become the lab when studying chemicals in the environment. Some companies have sophisticated indoor ecosystems in which they test their products. This can involve long or irregular hours, as well as heavy lifting to set up monitoring or testing equipment in the field.
- Analytical chemistry skills, especially chromatography, spectroscopy, and spectrophotometer are often required, especially at the entry level.
- Familiarity with the concepts of green chemistry, which involves reducing and eliminating the use or generation of hazardous substances when designing, manufacturing, or using chemical products and processes.
- Environmental scientists must be familiar with relevant agencies and regulations and keep that knowledge current as regulations change.
- Environmental chemistry is highly interdisciplinary, so it requires excellent interpersonal and communication skills when interacting with other scientists, and they should be able to express ideas effectively to a nonscientific audience as well. The importance of the latter becomes apparent when chemists deal with regulations or with a company’s sales and marketing staff.
- Analytical skills are crucial for environmental chemists to decide which tests to conduct, ensure test results are both accurate and precise, and understand what the results mean.
- Critical-thinking skills are required to reach conclusions from testing results, and problem-solving skills are required to identify the most cost-effective responses that will minimize waste, prevent pollution, and conserve resources.
- Environmental issues do not stop at governmental borders, so cultural awareness and the ability to speak other languages is becoming more valuable.
Opportunities exist in the regulatory area for chemists studying law, business, or public policy, and opportunities with nontraditional employers are expected to grow.
Environmental chemistry requires knowledge of fundamental principles in many subject areas, employers look for candidates who demonstrate the ability to broaden their skills and think in an interdisciplinary, analytical manner.
- Median annual wage: $43,030 (2015)
Careers A to Z
- Academic Professional Staff
- Agricultural and Food Chemistry
- Applied Research and Product Development
- Basic Research
- Chemical Engineering
- Chemical Information Management Specialist
- Chemical Technology
- Chemistry Professor
- Chemistry and the Law
- Chemistry in the Arts
- Computational Chemistry
- Dyes, Pigments and Inks
- Environmental Protection
- Forensic Chemistry
- Formulation Chemistry
- Hazardous Waste Management
- Health and Safety
- High School Chemistry Teacher
- Human Resources
- Industrial Management
- Lab Management
- Materials Science
- Medicinal Chemistry
- Military Science and Technology
- Nuclear Chemistry
- Oil and Petroleum
- Paints, Pigments, and Coatings
- Personal Care Chemistry
- Process Chemistry
- Project Management
- Public Information and Outreach
- Public Health
- Quality Assurance
- Quality Control
- Regulatory Affairs
- Science Policy
- Social Impact/Activism
- Technical Communication
- Technical Sales and Marketing
- Technical Support
- Textile Chemistry
- Water Chemistry
Environmental chemists may be involved in many different areas, such as analytical testing, new product development in the lab, fieldwork with users of chemicals, and safety and regulatory issues. Many chemists return to school to study public policy, law, or business and apply their chemistry knowledge in new ways. For example, knowledge of chemical processes is often vital for an individual who works in a corporation’s regulatory affairs department and ensures compliance with government regulations.
Environmental management is becoming a popular career track. Students who hold degrees in environmental sciences are finding jobs throughout the chemical industry, often working alongside geologists, biologists, and chemists.
Future Employment Trends
Continued employment growth is expected because of increased environmental regulations being enforced by the EPA and state agencies. Opportunities exist as the chemical industry employs a large number of environmental chemists to ensure that companies are in compliance with government regulations. As the number of regulations rise, so does the emphasis on compliance, thus increasing the demand for environmental chemists.
Opportunities exist for environmental chemists to move into various areas of expertise outside a traditional job in the lab, particularly for those also studying law, business, or public policy, in which case opportunities can be found in the regulatory area as well as in health and safety.
Opportunities with nontraditional employers, such as contract labs and consulting firms, are expected to grow as businesses increasingly outsource this work.
Is This Career a Good Fit for You?
Environmental protection technicians and scientists inspect facilities and sites, set up tests and monitoring stations, and collect data. They use analytical skills to evaluate those results and then prepare written and oral reports to share findings with interested parties. Because of all the variables involved in this type of work, important character traits include patience, adaptability, and flexibility. The ability to closely follow established procedures and regulations is also needed. They may be called on to develop or critically evaluate treatment or remediation plans or to design new cost-effective processes that will reduce or eliminate waste, pollution, and environmental impact, so they must be able to make good judgments and have excellent planning, organizing, and problem-solving skills. They work with a wide variety of other types of scientists and must often discuss their results with non-scientists, which requires strong interpersonal and communication skills.