Environmental Chemist

What is an environmental chemist? Environmental chemists work to improve environmental health and safety using their knowledge of the chemical properties of substances. They study the formation of chemicals, how chemicals interact with the environment and what effects they have. They also apply chemical theory to calculate the impact of human activity on the environment.

At a Glance

Imagine you are standing on the edge of a small stream trickling through your state-of-the-art laboratory. You are an environmental chemist working for a large manufacturing firm and this stream has been built to replicate a typical aquatic ecosystem.

Unlike natural streams, this one is laced with monitoring equipment that allows you to measure and record its chemical, physical, and biological properties and how they change through the course of an experiment. This stream is one of several ways you research and test new products to determine their environmental impact before they are put on the market.

As an environmental chemist, you test new products developed by the manufacturing company to ensure they do not pose a threat to the environment.

Your latest project is testing a new liquid sealant that the company plans to apply to its consumer products to prevent premature wear and tear.

Your lab has been given the task of determining if it is safe to use the liquid sealant based on how it affects and persists in the environment. Using sophisticated instruments such as chromatographs and the stream replicate, you will analyze and test the sealant to answer a number of environmental questions.

You need to know what happens when this product is released into the environment: does it break down into other products or stay intact?

You will test the effect this chemical has on waterways and determine what happens when it is discharged into the river, how it affects fish and aquatic plants, and how it affects wildlife that drinks from the river. Is there a risk of bioaccumulation in the food chain? Is this chemical removed from drinking water when it goes through the treatment facility? What about wastewater treatment processes?

You and your lab must find answers to all these questions before you sign off on the safety of this sealant and approve it for use on consumer products.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an environmental chemist:

  • Collect and analyze air, soil, and water samples
  • Develop instrumental methods to analyze various environmental media
  • Analyze environmental data and prepare reports
  • Assist in the development of remediation programs
  • Provide suggestions and assistance to improve production processes
  • Develop new methods for analyzing chemicals and contaminants
  • Contribute to the development of safety and emergency response protocols and respond to emergency chemical spills
  • Act as a consultant on the development of new chemical products
  • Analyze, synthesize, and characterize chemical compounds
  • Follow government regulations and ensure compliance
  • Use Geographic Information Systems (GIS)and computer modelling to predict and analyze environmental impacts
  • Provide input for the commercialization of new products
  • Develop strategies to reduce sources of pollution and treat waste that cannot be eliminated
  • Conduct research and literature reviews
  • Contribute to interdisciplinary research projects and collaborate with individuals from varying fields
  • Monitor other chemists, chemical technologists, and technicians
  • Design processes, systems, and equipment for quality assurance and quality control
  • Train and certify technical staff

Work Environment

Environmental chemists work in a variety of locations, including:

In the lab:

  • Preparing test solutions and processing samples
  • Testing samples and conducting experiments
  • Designing experimental protocols
  • Calibrating instruments

In the office:

  • Preparing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Researching literature and preparing reports and scientific papers
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, colleagues, and other scientists
  • Planning and implementing safety and environmental training programs
  • Keeping up-to-date on environmental regulations and legislation
  • Creating funding proposals for research projects
  • Researching new technology and advancements in chemistry, and consulting with other professionals in scientific fields

In the field:

  • Collecting samples for analysis
  • Conducting and directing environmental assessments and site clean-up projects
  • Performing on-site analyses for contaminants
  • Supervising fieldwork
  • Monitoring on-site crews

Where to Work

There are a number of places environmental chemists can find employment. They include:

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Biotechnology firms
  • Waste management firms
  • Environmental consulting firms
  • Agrochemical companies
  • Forensic labs
  • Firms in other industries, for example, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing


Search for jobs on the ECO Canada job board.

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as an environmental chemist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Biology
  • Physics

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an environmental chemist is a university undergraduate degree, though the majority of positions are in research and require graduate studies. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an environmental chemist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Chemistry
  • Environmental Science
  • Chemical Engineering

Certification is not mandatory for Environmental Chemists, but many practitioners choose to belong to professional associations such as their provincial association for professional chemists or to become a Certified Environmental Professional (EP).

Skills

Hard/ Technical Skills (skills obtained through formal education and training programs)

  • Knowledge of laboratory equipment
  • Systems analysis
  • Data analysis
  • Design and applying experiments

Soft Skills (personal attributes and characteristics)

  • Oral and written communication
  • Detail-oriented
  • Leadership
  • Logical and critical thinker
  • Observational skills and critical thinking
  • Ability to work independently and with a team
  • Time management

Environmental employers look for professionals who can combine technical knowledge with soft skills. Watch at our free webinar “Essential Not Optional: Skills Needed to Succeed in Canada’s Environmental Industry” or take our Essential Skills courses.

Education and Skills

Benoît Desroches

Benoît Desroches was always interested in chemical phenomena and always appreciated nature. Today he has the good fortune to be able to combine his interest in chemistry with a mission to protect the environment from toxic and dangerous chemicals. Benoît works in the laboratory at Stablex Canada, where his job is to verify the chemical composition of industrial residues brought into the lab.

When necessary, Benoît puts the residues through a treatment program that neutralizes them. Benoît also determines the appropriate disposal method for the chemical residues, which means he takes responsibility for making sure environmental and safety regulations are followed. Benoît studied for his bachelor of science in chemistry at the Université de Montréal. He got his current permanent position at Stablex after completing a summer work term there. What does he enjoy about his job? "The challenge of working safely in spite of the risks the chemicals present."

Your Impact

Environmental chemists help to promote environmental sustainability, conservation, and protection, and they contribute to the formation of regulations that protect the environment. They often coordinate with others working in geochemistry, oceanography, limnology, hydrogeology, and toxicology.

Environmental chemists may find employment with the provincial or federal government, land management and regulatory agencies, or they may conduct research and teach at academic institutions.

Environmental chemists contribute greatly towards environmental compliance. As an environmental chemist, you act as an advisor on the potential outcomes of contaminants in soil and groundwater, assess long-term risks to ecological and human health, and develop corrective strategies to resolve problems created by contaminated run-off, classify soils as hazardous waste, and manage their disposal during onsite remediation.

Environmental chemists look at the effects of pollutants and aim to reduce the level of contamination.  By studying the behaviour of the environment and how different pollutants react and interact with the environment, they can assess how they may affect human health and the economy.

There are many chemicals that interact in the environment and it can be difficult to know where they originated. Chemicals are introduced into the environment from various sources, including pesticides, oil spills, and harmful emissions from factories and vehicles. The research compiled by environmental chemists looks into the effects of chemical waste on wildlife, organisms, and human health when it is not properly disposed of and develops the tools and techniques needs to reduce the negative effects.

Occupational Classification

Individuals working as environmental chemists may be classified as:

NOC Code: 2112- Chemists

NOC Code: 2263- Inspectors in Public and Environmental Health and Occupational Health and Safety

NOC Code: 2134- Chemical Engineer

What is a NOC Code?

The National Occupation Classification (NOC) provides a standardized language for describing the work performed by Canadians in the labour market. It gives statisticians, labour market analysts, career counsellors, employers and individual job seekers a consistent way to collect data, describe and understand the nature of work within different occupations.

The NOC is developed and updated in partnership with Statistics Canada to coincide with the 5- year census cycles. It is based on in-depth occupational research and consultations conducted across Canada, to reflect changes in the Canadian labour market.

The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.

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