Honouring ecotoxicology

Over the past few years, the general public has become increasingly aware of chemical compounds such as endocrine disruptors, nanoparticles and PCBs, all sources of environmental pollution. To prevent healthcare and environmental crises and to respond to public concerns, a new scientific field has been developed and long-term research has been initiated into methods of detecting these substances as well as their impact on living things and the environment.

Jeanne Garric, Research Director at Irstea, has been a significant participant in the emergence of the French ecotoxicology field, with a passion and body of work that started at the end of the 1970s. To mark her award of the Legion of Honour, here is a summary of her career and of a now major discipline. 

30 years of research

The early years of the 20th century saw the first evidence of toxic chemical pollution lead to scientific and in-field stakeholder concerns on the impact of chemical contaminants on the environment and on aquatic environments in particular. Scientifically, a new field of research, “ecotoxicology”, was developed based on proposals made by French toxicologists Jean-Michel Jouany and René Truhaut at the end of the 1970s. At the time, EDF was funding scientific work to look at the impact of products used in antifouling treatments in nuclear plant water cooling towers. This perfect research opportunity was seized by Jeanne Garric to complete a thesis on environmental toxicology entitled “Chloration des réfrigérants atmosphériques, détermination du protocole optimal et de la toxicité des rejets” (Chlorination of cooling towers: defining an optimum protocol and the toxicity of waste) at the University of Metz.

Although ecotoxicology raised concerns and passions, the field had a difficult start: despite high public authority expectations, there were few specialists. Therefore, to meet pollution prevention and regulation requirements, the still developing discipline had to create methods and tools to evaluate risks linked to the environmental distribution of these chemical molecules resulting from human activities and present in minuscule amounts. 

Evaluations to limit the most toxic wastes

The methods developed were used to create initial regulations and limit the most toxic wastes. However, these remained imperfect as they were based on reductive approaches that were very far from the reality of exposure among aquatic communities in the ecosystem: biological impacts were measured molecule by molecule, from a reduced sample comprising a few model species. Feminisation in fish and masculinisation in gastropods, to mention only two key examples, are not usually caused by only one chemical substance, but by a mixture of several and are the consequence of complex and multiple processes that involve a cascade of events, at every level of biological organisation. As a consequence, ecotoxicology is a multidisciplinary science that includes disciplines such as biology, ecology, chemistry, mathematics, etc.

Preventing risks: A new challenge for ecotoxicology

There will always be new pollutants to evaluate, even if they have less impact on the environment due to new “green” chemistry fields taking hold.

For Jeanne Garric, the best is yet to come: There is still plenty of work to do out there. The lifespan of some chemical substances is such that we have not finished discovering their effects. Furthermore, she adds: The real challenge today is no longer in-field measurements, but taking into account the variability of responses and the vulnerability of ecosystems, as well as integrating this information to create a long-term assessment of long-term ecotoxic risks.

By showing itself to be capable of providing methods and tools to help managers deal with the need to evaluate toxic risks and respond to regulations, Irstea has positioned itself as a reference point in the field. Specifically, new chemical and biological tools and methods developed with public and private partners generate the necessary data to model chemical risks for entire populations and communities within their environment. However, the bulk of the work needed to build and experiment with these new models is yet to come.

As long as the momentum within ecotoxicology research is consolidated by encouraging training and organising research, the future looks bright for this young field where the challenges could have a significant impact on the health of our environment.

Jeanne Garric: Knight of the Legion of Honour

Jeanne Garric © T. Fournier / IrsteaJeanne Garric, Research Director at Irstea, Deputy Director for Science of the Water Department, was awarded the Legion of Honour on 27 September 2013, for her scientific career and her role in the emergence of ecotoxicology.

She was presented her award by Claudine Schmidt-Lainé, Chancellor of the Académie de Rouen (Rouen Education Authority) and an important figure in the scientific community of the Rhône Alpes region, particularly known for her involvement in developing and funding research projects. An emotion-filled ceremony full of high spirits was held in the new premises of the Irstea Lyon-Villeurbanne Centre on the La Doua scientific campus, in the presence of Jean-Marc Bournigal, Irstea President.

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