Water covers about 75% of the Earth's surface. It plays a significant role in all of our day-to-day lives. We drink it, enjoy it for recreation, and use it as part of a manufacturing process. Water is an integral part of every ecosystem and many industrial processes. Water chemists study the impact of water on other elements in the systems and how other elements in these systems affect the quality of water. Water chemists also contribute to the design and implementation of processes and policies to manage these effects.
Rick Webb, projects coordinator at the Shenandoah Watershed Study, looks at the impact of acid deposition--or acid rain--on Shenandoah National Park, the mountains of West Virginia, and Central Appalachia. Because of the park's proximity to relatively polluted areas, it receives a high level of sulfate deposition--the highest of all national parks. The scientists working on the project monitor the conditions of 65 streams, sampling some of them weekly and others four times a year. Based on the data collected, Webb's group looks at trends, interprets them, and tries to make projections about the impact of acid rain. "One of the questions our work raises is whether the Clean Air Act Amendments are sufficient to protect some of the country's wild regions."
Asking questions is up to Webb; answering questions is part of Ivan DeLoatch's job. As an environmental scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), DeLoatch reviews and evaluates data gathered by EPA and other sources and makes recommendations for regulations and government policy. His focus is primarily on the development of water regulations mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
DeLoatch spent eight years as a bench chemist. He has also worked as a data review chemist for a private environmental management company. "These work experiences gave me the ability to incorporate technical expertise into the environmental policy arena," he says. He recommends that students interested in this area take as many courses as possible in environmental policy, because having knowledge of policy issues as well as technical expertise is the key to success in this field.
Isabelle Cozzarelli, a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, primarily studies groundwater that has been contaminated by hydrocarbons, such as crude oil that leaks from a pipeline when it bursts or gasoline when it escapes from an underground tank. Other water issues studied in her research group include acid rain, radioactive elements in groundwater, and the flow of water in aquifers. "Much of the fundamental research we do has important practical applications," Cozzarelli says.
Don Johnson is a research associate at Nalco, a company that develops chemicals used in industrial water treatment. One of his projects involved developing a technology to prevent calcium phosphate from forming on the inside of industrial cooling towers. In many cases, calcium phosphate precipitates out of the water and deposits on equipment, clogging pipes and making an industrial process less efficient. Johnson says, "As part of my research, I looked at some published accounts of how organisms regulate the generation of mineral deposits, how a clam forms its shell, for example. Application of this knowledge helped our team at Nalco develop a class of calcium-inhibitor chemistries that would be cost-effective when applied to a real industrial problem."
Water chemists undertake a variety of responsibilities. Their titles vary as well--some of which are hydrologist, geologist, hydrobiogeochemist, water purification chemist, wastewater treatment plant chemist, surface-water chemist, and groundwater chemist. The range in titles reflects the interdisciplinary nature of the field and represents the wide range of applications of the work as well as the importance of these roles in our daily lives. Water chemists are both specialists and generalists. They use their specific knowledge about water for applications that affect whole ecosystems.
Water chemists generally work on interdisciplinary teams that may include scientists with expertise in soil culture, geology, aquatic biology, statistics, forestry, hydrogeology, chemistry, mathematical modeling, and database management. The teams study and monitor a given ecosystem or industrial process; they discover the impact of water on other elements of the system and, conversely, how these other elements affect the quality of the water.
Most positions include fieldwork, but industrial water chemists spend the majority of their time in the lab. Work hours may be nine to five but can also extend in to the night and to weekends if a project calls for it. The flexibility to travel overseas is important in industry, where chemists also interact with business managers, directing technical resources to meet the needs of customers.
A substantial water treatment industry exists because most manufacturing companies use water as part of their production or cooling processes. Both processes employ water chemists. An increasing number of jobs in industry are opening up overseas, particularly in Southeast Asia. Government positions for water chemists include those at the EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey. In academia, water chemists hold teaching positions and jobs in research centers. Environmental management firms also employ water chemists for consulting and remediation projects.
Water chemists often express a personal interest in and a commitment to the environment that goes beyond their scientific work. Chemists in industry say they enjoy doing work that safeguards water quality and that solves complex problems. Water chemists often describe themselves as very practical people with good analytical skills. They underscore the importance of being objective scientists.
Because this field is highly interdisciplinary, it is important to be conversant in a range of disciplines, including microbiology, geology, aqueous geochemistry, geochemical kinetics, hydrogeology, and microbial ecology. Lab experience is vital, and computer skills are necessary in the field. Courses in environmental chemistry will be helpful, particularly those that bring you up to speed on current policy issues.
Despite strong environmental consciousness and concerns about water purity in the United States, staff reductions in industry have resulted in a very competitive job market. Environmental consulting firms may have more openings than other areas. For those willing to live overseas, opportunities exist in developing industrial countries that need to build water treatment facilities. In academia, jobs are equally competitive and scientists caution that much of their time is spent seeking funding to finance their work.
To find out what a person in this type of position earns in your area of the country, please refer to the ACS Salary Comparator. Use of the ACS Salary Comparator is a member-only benefit. General information about salaries in chemical professions can be obtained through published survey results.
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Water chemists say the best preparation for this field is to build a broad base of knowledge that includes a solid foundation in one of the chemical disciplines. Lab courses are equally important because actual hands-on chemistry is one of the best ways to prepare for work in this field. Environmental science courses that build an understanding of government policy issues are the key to success when combined with technical expertise.