• Research Cluster I: Behaviour, exposure and effects of environmental contaminants and nutrients

    If we consider Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) on bio-accumulation of pesticides as one of the founding writings of environmental awareness and science, then this general focus field on the fate and impact of environmental contaminants is arguably one of the cornerstones of our current environmental understanding.

    While this research field is characterized by a high scientific complexity, on the one hand, it continues to have a (very) high societal relevance at the same time. Participants in this SENSE Research Cluster strive for scientific excellence, combined with clear societal communication.

    Featuring subjects, mechanisms and methods that are being developed and applied in this SENSE Research Cluster are, for example:

    • chemical speciation, bioavailability, mobility, uptake and eco(toxico)logical risk assessment of nutrients and micropollutants
    • developing and testing of new analytical and measurement techniques
    • risk-based toxicity profiling of new pollutants, organic compounds and heavy metals (from molecular level to the thermodynamic macroscopic scale and field scale)

    We welcome experts in the field of environmental contaminants and nutrients to participate in this research cluster to exchange knowledge and stimulate new innovative developments (if you are not a member of the SENSE Research School but involved with this subject, then you are still welcome to enroll and participate in this research cluster).


    To read more about the SENSE research clusters in general, click HERE.

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    Coordinators and experts


    SENSE key experts:

    • Prof. Jacob de Boer (VU-IVM-C&B)
    • Prof. Wim Admiraal (IBED-UvA)
    • Prof. Pim de Voogt (UvA-IBED-ESS)
    • Dr John Parsons (UvA-IBED-ESS)
    • Prof. Ivonne Rietjens (WU-TOX)
    • Prof. Rob Comans (WU-SOQ)
    • Prof. Bart Koelmans (WU-AEW)
    • Prof. P.J. (Paul) van den Brink (WU-AEW & WUR-Alterra)
    • Prof. Rob Comans (WU-SOQ)
    • Prof. A.J. Hendriks (RU-ES)

    Contact information:

    For more information about this research cluster, please contact Dr. Monique Gulickx (

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      To illustrate the urgency and relevance of new developments in this field, below we present some of the emerging research questions that are currently challenging both science and society:

      1. What is the impact of novel chemicals and pharmaceuticals entering the biosphere on ecosystems and human well-being?
        Scientific and societal relevance: Thousands of novel chemicals, including long-lived synthetic pharmaceuticals, are currently entering the biosphere, but there are few systematic studies to understand their impact on ecosystems and human well-being. This raises an urgent need for cost-effective methods to screen and prioritize novel chemicals with respect to human and ecological risks.
      2. Climate change may alter the fate, behaviour and exposure of organisms to environmental pollutants, including nitrogen, phosphorus, heavy metals and organic compounds – what are the effects of these altered contaminant levels on organisms in the environment, and ultimately, humans?
        Scientific and societal relevance: Climate change has serious implications for air, soil and water quality in terms of environmental pollutant exposure. Changes in atmospheric sea-level pressure, wind fields, sea-ice drift, ice cover, length of melt season, precipitation patterns, hydrology, ocean currents and water mass distribution will alter pollutant pathways. Higher water temperatures and changes in the timing, intensity, and duration of precipitation can affect water quality. Where streamflow and lake levels fall, there will be increased concentrations of pollutants. Furthermore, due to increased frequency and intensity of rainfall, flood magnitudes and frequencies will very likely increase in most regions. This will result in altered pollutant mobility and in large volumes of water which can transport pollutants into water bodies, or the introduction of waterborne pollutants to soils. This will affect bioavailability in fresh water and soils, which in return will affect organisms in the environment, and ultimately, humans.
      3. Is the increased prevalence of health problems in Western society related to exposure to mixtures of environmental chemicals in early life stages?
        Scientific and societal relevance: A new paradigm has evolved in recent years, which stems from the idea that environmental factors in early life and in uteri can have profound influences on lifelong health (e.g., the foetal basis of adult disease or the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) paradigm. The exposure of humans to a mixture of persistent and widespread environmental contaminants during early life stages may contribute to health problems later in life, such as reproductive and (neuro)developmental disorders and increased prevalence of disease.
      4. How do we define and decide what are acceptable short- and long-term effects of chemicals on the environment in terms of population sustainability and biodiversity?
        Scientific and societal relevance: EU directives (e.g. Water Framework) concerned with chemicals (REACH, heavy metals, nutrients, pesticides, biocides, pharmaceuticals etc.) state that no unacceptable effects should take place and herewith allow for an acceptable effect of chemicals and their interactions in the environment on populations. Since acceptable effects are not well defined, there is a lot of room for misinterpretation. We need objective and transparent methods to assess acceptable short- and long-term ecological effects of chemicals. Development and application of these methods must be connected with long-term targets for biodiversity.
      5. What is the environmental and human risk of contaminants associated with rapidly developing economies such as China, both in the country of origin and in Western countries?
        Scientific and societal relevance: With globalization of markets comes a globalization of the spread of environmental contamination over long distances, across many borders. Likewise, the responsibility for sound and sustainable environmental protection strategies is not limited only to the country of production; responsibility also spreads to the consumers who create a huge demand for the products. The European market for Chinese (and other South East Asian) goods is enormous and growing. Because of this, European consumers share responsibility for minimizing the impacts of contaminants emitted due to the production, transport and consumption of products imported from these areas. Research to support sound and effective policies on limiting the effects of environmental contamination requires a global effort. This research aim can be best realized by cooperation between scientists from the East and West.
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        Here you will be able to find interesting articles, links to books that are worth reading, presentations that caught your attention, etc. To suggest items that should be placed here, please follow the instructions mentioned below or send an email to the (technical) coordinators.

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          Add a document to the Library

          Do you have any interesting articles, reports or other documents that you want to share within this research cluster? You can add the by clicking on Upload Documents below. Please note that your document will not be visible in the library immediately, because it first has to be approved by the coordinator. You can also contact him if you would like your suggested document to be brought under our attention in a different way or if you would like the document to appear differently in the library (there are some options available for that).

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            Discussion forum

            In this forum topics related to cluster I can be discussed, varying from scientific issues to organizational matters. The forum is very easy to use.

            To enter the forum, click on Forum RC I below. You will go to the overview page of the forum, where you can see all existing discussions. If you click on a discussion title, you will enter the discussion. You can read all posts and you can also respond to them, by clicking Reply.

            To add a new discussion topic, you can click on Add a new discussion topic on top of the overview page. Please make sure that your new discussion is really new and does not overlap with existing discussions, otherwise the forum will get messy.

            The forum is maintained by the technical coordinator of the research cluster, who will remove any inappropriate contributions to the discussions.

            Please note the following!

            Everyone who enrolls in this course, is automatically subscribed to this forum and will receive e-mail notifications of every post on the forum. If you do not wish to be subscribed to the forum, you can click Unsubscribe from this forum in the top right corner of the forum overview page.

            If you do not want to receive too many notifications, you can adapt the forum settings for your account. To do so, follow these steps:
            a. Click on your username, which is always visible in blue in the bottom left corner of the page. You will go to your personal profile.
            b. Click Edit profile.
            c. Click Show advanced.
            d. In the field E-mail digest type you can now choose one of the three options: standard - notification of every post; daily an e-mail of all posts in full text; daily one e-mail with the titles of all posts. If there are no posts at all, you won’t get a summary e-mail either.
            e. You can also adapt other settings if you like.
            f. Scroll down and choose Update profile to activate your new settings.

            If you want to give feedback on the functioning of the forum or group page in general, then you are most welcome to leave a post in the discussion Technical feedback. The SENSE team will keep an eye on this discussion and will try to process your feedback as good as possible.

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            Section 6