What Do Environmental Chemists Do?

Lucy Bell-Young

by Lucy Bell-Young

8th September 2020

Environmental chemistry is an exciting career concerned with what is known as the ‘fate and transport’ of chemicals in the environment. Often confused with green chemistry, environmental chemists analyse how chemicals and biochemicals alike move through the environment, and how these can impact animals, ecosystems, and our own health. 

If you want to learn more about what environmental chemists do, what the perks of the job are, and how to work towards becoming one in the UK, read on! 

Environmental Chemist Education Requirements

If you’re interested in becoming an environmental chemist, there are a few prerequisites you need under your belt, starting with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. This usually takes between three to four years to complete, depending on your university, and will set the foundation for you to continue pursuing environmental chemistry. 

Aside from studying generic chemistry topics, you must also have a good understanding of a range of related subjects in order to excel as an environmental chemist. This is because environmental chemistry is an interdisciplinary field of study, and involves just as much biology, physics, and geography as it does chemistry: 

  • Biological science is vital for understanding biochemicals in the environment, as well as how chemicals in general can affect organic life, whether it’s an ecosystem or living organism.
  • Geography will allow you to more proficiently analyse patterns in the earth’s natural landforms, and use these to identify potential hazards, or explain certain chemical processes. 
  • Physics gives environmental chemists crucial insight into how the atmosphere and oceans interact, how chemical reactions take place in the environment and why, and even things like radioactive decay, or the use of isotopes in dating techniques.
  • Mathematics is also an important skill to master in environmental chemistry. For example, environmental chemists are often asked to create mathematical models that show how toxic chemicals, like heavy metals, are biologically amplified in the environment. 
  • Ecology is another key subject because it gives you a critical understanding of population dynamics, and how certain chemicals in the environment may affect the organisms and ecosystems of a given area. 

You can specialise in environmental chemistry by pursuing advanced postgraduate degrees, like a Masters of Science or even a PhD in the subject itself. Expect to carry out a lot of fieldwork while you do this; field work is just as, if not more important than laboratory work in environmental chemistry, and it will be a regular part of the job if you decide to pursue this career. 

young environmental scientist at field doing biological research outdoors with colorful chemical liquid in test tube

A career as an environmental chemist involves a lot of fieldwork so that you can sample and analyse the fate and transport of chemicals in the environment

How To Become An Environmental Chemist In The UK

Just like in other European countries, the minimum qualification for an environmental chemist in the UK is a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, environmental science, or chemical engineering. Some environmental chemists have Master’s and Doctoral degrees as well, with related specialisations in subjects like analytical and inorganic chemistry. Apprenticeships and on-the-job training are also required if you want to pursue this career path. 

Aside from strong knowledge and skills in chemistry, an environmental chemist must also be knowledgeable about laws and regulations pertaining to various environmental issues. This is because most of the time, the research conducted by environmental chemists is used as the basis for public policies, at a local or national level.

The environmental chemistry job market is relatively competitive because of the highly technical skills that are needed; in fact, few are qualified for the job. Still, both the public and private sectors need environmental chemists. For example, the government needs environmental chemists for regulatory purposes, while companies need them for compliance purposes. This means that there is a good demand for environmental chemists in the UK. 

What Are Environmental Field Chemists?

As the name implies, environmental field chemists mainly do fieldwork. More often than not, they collect and analyse samples on the spot, or by using mobile laboratories. They do this to analyse how chemicals move through and affect different environments.

Environmental field chemists also help in the clean-up of toxic or hazardous chemicals at field sites, such as chemical spills from container trucks. They’re similarly responsible for ensuring the safe handling and transportation of hazardous chemicals. Environmental field chemists play a crucial role in ensuring that environmental laws and other regulations or protocols are carefully followed.

Competent environmental field chemists are highly skilled in various laboratory techniques and analytical tools. This makes them knowledgeable in various related fields, such as:

  • Gas chromatography: This is an analytical technique that involves the separation of compounds in a mixture through the vaporisation of the compounds without chemically decomposing them.
  • Liquid chromatography: This is another analytical technique that involves the separation of ions or molecules in a solution.
  • Organic chemistry: Many pollutants in the environment are organic compounds, such as fossil fuels. Environmental field chemists study the structure, properties, and reactivity of organic compounds (as contaminants) with other substances found in the environment.
  • Toxicology: This is a field of study in chemistry that focuses on toxic substances. It overlaps with other disciplines, such as biology, pharmacology, medicine, and forensics. An environmental field chemist uses toxicology to study the adverse effects of toxic chemicals on organisms.

What’s The Salary For An Environmental Chemist In The UK?

According to Glassdoor, the average base salary of an environmental chemist in the United Kingdom is £36,025 per year. This is about £10,000 more than the average salary reported on the Payscale website for environmental scientists, which is £26,308 per year. 

According to Payscale, some companies also provide additional financial benefits, like an average bonus of £750 and an average profit sharing of £1,560. These figures are near to the actual salaries for related jobs posted on the Indeed website, and show that environmental chemistry can be a lucrative field to work in if you’re looking for a successful career in chemistry.

cientist in protective mask and suit taking water samples from river.

Environmental chemists analyse samples using mobile laboratories. They do this to see how chemicals move through and affect the environment

An Environmental Chemist Job Description

The specific responsibilities of environmental chemists vary from one institution or company to the next. However, here’s a general overview of responsibilities and requirements:

  • Collect data based on onsite observations and samples from fieldwork
  • Develop means or methods of collecting data based on the factors being studied
  • Do research that will reduce the impact of hazardous contaminants in the environment
  • Ensure that manufacturing procedures are compliant with environmental laws and regulations
  • Provide advice to government policymakers and private organisations based on research results
  • Use computer modelling to analyse the short-term and long-term impacts of environmental contaminants
  • Review previous research data and other resources to create a more comprehensive picture of the environmental situation

Environmental chemists play a key role in protecting the environment against toxic substances, particularly the  pollution of air, water and soil. While most careers in chemistry are concerned with creating new chemicals or manufacturing new medicines, environmental chemistry is more focused on preventing synthetic chemicals from disrupting the environmental balance.

Analytical tools and techniques are crucial in environmental chemistry. The accuracy and precision of these will determine research results, as well as the recommendations given by the chemists. These will ultimately determine the appropriate interventions that need to be taken to protect a given location from chemicals or biochemicals.

Find out more in our careers in chemistry resources hub.


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