Plucking Solutions Out of Thin Air

One environmental chemist's discovery of the source of airborne pollutants that were contaminating humans led to national policy changes.

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If asked what humans have in common with polar bears, it may surprise many to learn that we share the title for world’s most contaminated organisms when it comes to a group of pollutants called perfluorinated acids.

Scott Mabury, professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto, was the first to trace these pollutants back to their source, enabling policy changes on products that put their precursors into the air.

Mabury is an environmental chemist: he studies the chemistry of the environment and how chemical compounds move and change, and how they may cause harm to ecosystems and the organisms that inhabit them.

Chemical pollutants act as chemical probes for what can happen in different environments, from soil to water to air. Mabury uses them to tease apart the mechanisms for how change happens.

In the story of perfluorinated acid contamination, no one knew that the source chemicals were pollutants. It was only through metabolic transformations after their release in the environment that the final pollutants were created.

“These things can be inhaled and we will metabolically convert them from the precursor alcohols into the perfluorinated acids, the final compounds that no longer degrade,” says Mabury. “And they stick around in our bodies for three, four, five years. So they tend to reach relatively high concentrations.”

The precursor alcohols can easily become airborne. They were globally used in treatments for carpets and papers, and in the manufacture of products like paints, adhesives, polishes, and electronics.

“They were waste products that (neither) industry nor government knew were there, so they didn’t know to regulate them,” explains Mabury. “We discovered them in the atmosphere, worked them back to where they came from.”

This work led to Environment Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency enacting new regulations. In turn, industry stepped up and produced cleaner alternatives.

“We’re endeavouring now at designing much greener alternatives: chemicals that will impart the surface properties that fluorinated chemicals do,” adds Mabury, “but also when they get released in the environment that Mother Nature will just chew them up, back to their original constituents. That would be a beautiful thing.”

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Scott Mabury holds a PhD in Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry from the University of California, Davis. He first joined the University of Toronto in 1995 as the first faculty member in environmental chemistry and later helped lead the creation of undergraduate and graduate programs in this sub-discipline. Mabury served as Chair of the Department of Chemistry from 2003 until 2009. He was appointed as VP-University Operations  January 1, 2012, and was reappointed in December 2016.  In January, 2019,  he was appointed to the newly created position of Vice-President, Operations and Real Estate Partnerships, and his term was extended to June, 2023. Portfolios reporting to him include Information Technology Services, Facilities and Services, Ancillary Services, Office of Planning and Budget, University Planning Design & Construction encompassing Campus and Facilities Planning, Project Development, Project Management, Design & Engineering, Leasing and Academic + Campus Events. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and his current research interests are in the areas of environmental photochemistry and fluorinated organic chemicals. He and his group have written extensively on the environmental fate, disposition and persistence of fluorinated agrochemicals, industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals publishing over 200 scientific papers in refereed journals; over 30 PhD and MSc students have graduated from his group. Mabury has presented his research at conferences, workshops and given invited seminars all over the world. He is one of the most highly cited scholars in his field, and has been awarded an OCUFA Teaching Award and the CIC Environment R&D Award. Mabury spends weekends on his Northumberland Country Farm growing soybeans, wheat, corn and this year, canola.

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