To Chase Chemicals Down Unexpected Paths

Paul Capel traces the fate of chemicals so that we understand their consequences

Humans use chemicals—lots of them. And some portion of them end up in the environment—in plants and animals, in our food, and eventually, in our bodies. The environmental movement of chemicals is a perfect illustration of the interconnectedness of everything on Earth, and, in turn, the adverse effects we sometimes observe from chemicals illustrate the unintended consequences of our actions.

Paul Capel Q&A

What is your research focus?

I use data from actual environmental observations to better understand, quantify, simulate, and predict the occurrence and fate of the chemicals in streams, groundwater, and air. I take a very holistic approach that considers the interconnected movement of chemicals throughout the landscape, air, surface water, and groundwater.

Why does it matter?
We all use water and chemicals every day. Our work—to better understand and quantify the behavior of chemicals released into the environment—provides a scientific foundation to help make wise policy decisions to protect our water resources, and to provide the science to clean it. Abundant, clean water makes for a sustainable world.

Paul Capel Paul Capel, Adjunct Associate Professor

Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering

“I love working with the students and help them develop into our next generation of scientists and engineers.”

What needs to happen to solve this?
It starts with our individual, everyday decisions to decrease chemical use and pay attention to our personal impact on water. But, it also involves hard decisions by industry, agriculture, mining, and our governments. Example: The river near where I grew up in Ohio was famous its fish kills and for catching on fire. The results of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the creation of the EPA in the 1970s is that much of visible pollution has disappeared. But new, different types of contamination are occurring that are not so visible. At some point, our state, nation, and world will reach some tipping points.

So what does the future look like within the context of your work?
There are perhaps two possible contrasting futures: One results from the societal decision to continue our current patterns and trends in chemical use and will yield ever-increasing contamination…. The other results from the collective decision to limit our use of chemicals toward a sustainable world.