Hazardous materials (hazmat) management chemists are an integral part of teams responsible for detecting and identifying chemical pollutants in the air, water, and soil. Chemists also help design techniques that reduce pollution and remediate (clean up) problems caused by hazardous waste. They help evaluate and coordinate the storage and handling of hazardous waste, the cleanup of contaminated soil or water, or other activities that impact the environment.
Hazardous waste management is a relatively new field that has evolved as a subset of environmental science, as companies realized that rigorous scientific investigation can solve environmental problems. As various government agencies began to issue and enforce waste management regulations, these organizations sought chemists who could provide the scientific knowledge necessary to comply with the law. The field has also expanded to include investigation of all types of potentially hazardous materials, not just hazardous waste.
Hazardous waste management chemists generally use analytical chemistry skills to determine the composition of materials deemed hazardous, working either in a lab or in the field. Teamwork is key. Biologists, toxicologists, and water and soil chemists work together to evaluate hazardous wastes and develop strategies for disposal or cleanup.
A bachelor’s or master’s degree in chemistry is required to enter the field of hazardous waste management. Few Ph.D. chemists are hired since their education is often deemed too narrow or focused for the broad base of skills needed in hazardous waste management. A strong foundation in analytical, organic, and inorganic chemistry is recommended. Knowledge of geology and areas of environmental chemistry—such as soil or water chemistry and the chemistry involved in biodegradation—make candidates more attractive to potential employers. Other beneficial skills for chemists in this field are math ability and computer training.
Take courses in the environmental sciences and the basic chemical sciences used in hazardous waste management. Entry-level positions generally require only a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and people typically stay with an entry-level job for one to two years before advancing either within the company or to another firm. Advanced degrees are less important in hazardous waste management than in the more structured academic world; only 10% of chemists working in this field hold doctorates.
Hazardous materials (hazmat) professionals are hired by waste management companies, government agencies, chemical companies, and academia.
Many chemists in hazardous waste management are bench chemists who work in laboratories to do instrumental analysis of materials. They also mathematically model the chemical fate of materials, evaluate bioavailability, and predict the success of competing environmental remediation efforts. Environmental engineers may divide their time between office work/meetings and conducting environmental sampling in the field. In academic environments, chemists research and develop new products that clean up hazardous wastes. Improvements in equipment used in the field have minimized the routine work chemists have had to do in the past, allowing them to do more trace analytical work.
Employers run the gamut from academia to government and from chemical companies to firms that specialize in cleaning up hazardous waste. Independent analytical labs are excellent places to learn about the instrumentation and methods used in the field. In the past they attracted only entry-level chemists, but they now offer good opportunities for today’s more career-oriented chemists to advance.
Although chemists can find hazardous waste management companies nationwide, some areas of the country, particularly in southern states such as Texas and Louisiana, have more jobs available because they have a higher concentration of petrochemical makers. Western states, such as Utah, are becoming centers for hazardous waste disposal and offer good employment opportunities.
Hazardous waste chemists should have an interest in the environment, an aptitude for detail, and the flexibility to keep up with constantly changing government regulations. The ability to work well in teams is imperative. Good communication skills are necessary to move into management or business-oriented positions.
There are many opportunities in western states that are becoming centers for hazardous waste disposal and in southern states that have a high number of petrochemical makers.
Students interested in hazardous waste management careers should attend schools with well-established programs in this field.