Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and Emerging Contaminants

Researcher analysing a sample

Our world-leading research discovers, conceptualises, and communicates new knowledge about environmental pollution with persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and emerging contaminants (ECs). We study POPs/ECs using state-of-the-art instrumentation and develop innovative models to understand their risk to the environment and humans. We work with stakeholders to inform environmental management and policy.

Our multi-disciplinary research combines aspects of environmental chemistry, toxicology, exposure, and pharmacokinetic modelling to study the presence, distribution, fate, and risk of emerging environmental pollutants. These include, but are not limited to: halogenated flame retardants, microplastics, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS, AKA “forever chemicals”), plasticisers, pesticides, and UV-stabilisers. We apply state-of-the-art analytical techniques to measure these pollutants, including: ultraperformance liquid chromatography (UPLC), gas chromatography (GC), tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS), high resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS), micro fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (µ-FTIR), and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). We pioneered in vitro laboratory 3D-human tissue equivalent models as alternatives to laboratory animals, to study the dermal bioavailability and biotransformation of toxic chemical pollutants. Our group also develop and apply pharmacokinetic models to predict the body burdens and toxicity of toxic chemicals in vulnerable groups, including nursing infants and toddlers. 

We work with national and international stakeholders to provide impactful information that drives pollution management options, and advise policy makers on environmental and health protection legislation. Our research has informed the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and various environmental protection regulations by the EU, Canada, and USA. We have also informed the UK’s proposed new approach to furniture fire safety. We also work with national stake holders from the private sector to provide solutions for recycling e-waste and treating wastewater. Our research is regularly featured in international scientific journals, as well as national and international newspapers, radio, and TV stations.

We will continue to inform policy by conducting innovative research into the fate and behaviour of emerging chemical contaminants and their environmental impacts at all points of their life cycle, from production, through use, and disposal/recycling.

Research areas

  • Human and wildlife exposure to multiple chemical stressors.
  • Pioneering the application of in vitro 3D-human tissue equivalent models, as alternatives to lab animals, to provide novel insights into the absorption and risk of POPs and emerging contaminants. 
  • Innovative research into human exposure and risk assessment of microplastics and associated chemicals (e.g., plasticisers, flame retardants, PFAS) in the indoor environment.
  • The presence of POPs and related contaminants in the waste stream and the implications for the Circular Economy and recycling
  • Fate, behaviour, and risk of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment.
  • Innovative, bio-based, zero-waste solutions for wastewater treatment. 

Research funding

  • European Union, through various schemes including European training networks (ETNs), Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellowships, European Industrial Doctorate (EID) networks, European Research and Innovation Staff Exchange (RISE) projects, and more recently the HORIZON Mission Restore our ocean and waters by 2030 (HORIZON-MISS-2022-OCEAN-01).
  • Colt Foundation
  • Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)/Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS)
  • Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
  • Drinking Water Inspectorate
  • Environment Agency
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of Ireland
  • European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC)
  • European Science Foundation
  • Food Standards Agency
  • Innovate UK
  • Institute of Global Innovation (IGI) 
  • The Leverhulme Trust
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

Postgraduate opportunities

The POPs/emerging contaminants group welcomes applications from prospective PhD candidates. Reflecting global concerns about POPs and emerging contaminants, we have to date, supervised doctoral students from 21 different countries.