Fashion and photography to play role as DCU researcher aims to clean up our environment

22 Jan 2016

One of the outfits that will feature at the marine fashion event. Photo: Johnny McMillan

Dr Jenny Lawler will follow the trail of plasticisers in landfill and waste and look at links with health, in an effort to make our environment safer.

When it comes to environmental waste, plastic is not so fantastic. Some phthalate chemicals, which are used to make plastic, have been shown to leach out into the environment, and they have been linked with health problems such as reduced fertility in humans.

In Ireland, the issue of phthalates in the environment is still something of an unknown quantity, according to Dr Jenny Lawler from Dublin City University (DCU), who is about to gather the data.

“We are going to assess the occurrence and fates of phthalates currently in the Irish environment,” explains Lawler, a lecturer in DCU’s school of biotechnology. “This has never been looked at comprehensively before.”

Phthalate issues

Jenny Lawler Environment Research

Dr Jenny Lawler, DCU, who is undertaking research on phthalates. Photo: Shana Singh Photography

Phthalate esters, synthetic organic chemicals used as plasticisers for making PVC materials, can end up in the environment through manufacturing waste and when phthalate-containing products such as medical devices, clothing, flooring, packaging and toys are disposed of.

There’s a potential problem here because, in animal and human studies, some phthalates have been shown to disrupt hormone activities and affect the reproductive system, explains Lawler.

“Some phthalates were banned or limited for use in manufacturing, but new research is coming out now showing that what were thought of as safe alternatives are linked to a risk of high blood pressure and diabetes among adolescents and children.”

Another problem with phthalates is that they can build up in the environment, she adds. “They don’t break down easily, they accumulate in soil, animals and waterways, and limited studies of phthalates in the Irish environment to date have found them in places like river sediments and sludges. So we want to get a better picture of the state of phthalates in the Irish environment at the moment.”

The three-year project, to be funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to the tune of €350,000, will kick off next month and involves the DCU Water Institute, where Lawler is a principal investigator, Arizona State University and the Norwegian Institute for Water Research.

“We will be looking for 11 different phthalates in drinking water sources, soils, wastewater, treated wastewater, landfill leachate, municipal wastes and recyclables,” explains Lawler. “We want to develop a comprehensive database of the occurrence of different phthalates within the different matrices and look at how it all fits together.”

Follow the trails

Part of the detective work will follow the trails of phthalates from plastic waste in bins to see how they move into the environment, and the researchers will also look at phthalate levels in sewage to see if they tally with human health issues locally.

“One of the biggest sources of exposure for humans to phthalates is food packaging and food and about 90 per cent of those phthalates will be directly excreted from the human body within a day,” says Lawler. “So we will be looking at health data so see if we can link phthalate levels in sewage with the health impacts around the community population.”

Water Institute Week

Environment research

One of the outfits that will feature at the marine fashion event. Photo: Johnny McMillan

The DCU Water Institute has an interest in all things water, from local to global, from biological to legal, and other contaminants of growing concern include plastic microbeads, pharmaceuticals and neonicotinoids (which may affect bee populations), so the Institute is keeping its finger on the pulse, explains Lawler.

To put water on everyone’s radar, the Water Institute Week will run in DCU from 25 to 28 January, kicking off on Monday with a “marine science fashion fusion event” called Diaphanous Beneath. “It is very cool, marine-inspired garments, and we have a designer in residence, Pamela Heaney from Limerick Institute of Technology,” says Lawler. “I have seen a preview of a few of them and I think it is going to be amazing.”

If photography floats your boat then check out DCU computer scientist Brian Stone’s exhibition on an underwater vision system to identify sharks, among other species. There will also be workshops on technology to monitor coastal pollution and advanced analytical methods to analyse water in the environment, as well as tours of the labs at the Institute.

Read, read, read

As Lawler gears up to tracking potentially harmful chemicals in the Irish environment, she reflects that, when at school, chemistry was not in her plans. “I didn’t do chemistry for Leaving Cert, I did physics,” she says. “Then I went into engineering in UCD, expecting to do electronic engineering, but in that first general year I found I loved chemistry.”

She went on to specialise and did a PhD in DCU on membrane separation and worked as a chemical engineering consultant in the biopharmaceutical industry before returning to DCU to carry out her research.

For school students today, she recommends to read beyond the science they are learning at school. “Read popular science and maths books that will really ignite your passion for the STEM subjects,” she says. “When I was a child my parents gave me a book about Marie Curie and I lapped it up, it made me want to invent things. So read and read and read and you may find you are really passionate about science and technology.”

The EPA-funded phthalates project is looking to recruit a PhD student – interested? Email

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication