Only greater consumer awareness will bring change in attitude to the environment

Ljubljana, 7 February - Research into the effects of the most dangerous substances to human health dominates the work of Dr Milena Horvat, the head of the Department for Environmental Science at the Jožef Stefan Institute. She has been studying the presence of dangerous substances in the environment and their impact on people and other living organisms. She is currently working on biomonitoring for detecting harmful substances in the environment and their transmission to humans.

Ljubljana, Reaktorski center Podgorica.
Vodja Odseka za znanosti o okolju na IJS Milena Horvat.
Foto: Anže Malovrh/STA

Ljubljana, Reaktorski center Podgorica.
Vodja Odseka za znanosti o okolju na IJS Milena Horvat.
Foto: Anže Malovrh/STA

According to Dr Horvat, humans live in an age of "chemicalization", in which the surrounding environment contains many harmful chemicals. "We live in a period of constant interaction with chemicals - be it in our physical surroundings, the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the cosmetics we put on our bodies."

For this reason studies of the impact of chemicals on humans have become increasingly important. This includes human biomonitoring, a process dedicated to detecting dangerous chemicals and their interactions with humans.

Biomonitoring is a scientific technique used to measure and monitor changes in organisms, tissues, fluids, cells and biochemical processes caused by exposure to chemicals. The purpose of biomonitoring is to determine specific trends, which are in turn used to gauge the effects of exposure to specific chemicals on health.

The biggest challenge for scientists is the sheer number of harmful substances found in the environment and the fact that most are present in extremely low concentrations. Determining the presence of such substances requires exceptionally precise mass spectrometry technology. Successful analysis also requires sterile laboratories and suitable equipment for working with biologic material.

Dr Horvat believes her science has failed to effectively communicate the achievements in this area to the public and experts. Only through better awareness among consumers will society change its attitude to the environment and its way of life, she said.

Research on mercury

Dr Horvat has worked on understanding the dangers posed by mercury and its compounds in the environment to human health. She has also worked on remediation of polluted surroundings and the development of cost-effective technologies for removing mercury from emissions.

Mercury has unique physical characteristics, being the only metal which is volatile at room temperature. This means that, with industrialisation, the concentration of mercury in the atmosphere has grown significantly. A major contributor to the transfer of mercury into the atmosphere is the burning of fossil fuels.

The Department for Environmental Science has developed technology which can remove mercury together with sulphur dioxide and other pollutants from the environment. The technology is being developed together with Slovenian industry, including the Termoelektrarna Šoštanj thermal power plant. "The technology will ensure that the burning of lignite in TEŠ will produce miniscule emissions of mercury," said Horvat. The use of this technology has been recognised by peers around the world and the technology is being adopted by other thermal power plants outside of Slovenia.

Department of Environmental Science

The Department of Environmental Science was created with the merger of several smaller departments. The joining of these has helped to create a more interdisciplinary approach among the various fields in environmental science, which is seen as essential in the transfer of scientific discoveries into everyday use.

The research, educational and developmental tasks performed by the department focus on environmental research dealing with the biological and geochemical circulation of substances in the environment, the interaction between the environment and human health, traceability and safety of food, environmental measurements, development of clean technologies and waste treatment, environmental impact studies, and risk assessments. A core activity for the department is chemical analysis.

"We don't want to be better than others, we want to be better with others"

The department works out of the Research Reactor Centre in Podgorica, which recently invested in new equipment aimed at expanding analysis based on isotopes. This will upgrade the quality of research and give the department a competitive advantage. Areas of research that stand to benefit from the new equipment include food safety and traceability, diagnostics, public health, and the environment. The upgraded facilities also open new opportunities for training young researchers.

Dr Horvat says that the department's goal is to become a leader in analysis excellence. Achieving this requires cooperation with others to make everyone better, since accurate research results require cooperation among researchers and departments.

The work performed by the department has helped shape international policies. Its findings helped contributed to the Minamata Convention of 2013. The document deals with reducing mercury exposure around the world and is named after a settlement near the town of Kumamoto which was in 1950 the site of what remains the worst mercury poisoning accident in the world.

Dr Milena Horvat

Over the past eight years, Dr Horvat has presented her findings in over 80 papers that have achieved internationally acclaim with over 3,700 citations and a Hirsch Index of 33. She has been invited to lecture at international conferences and research institutions around the world.

Dr Horvat is active in a series of European projects and in international environmental organisations, including those working within the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Cooperation chart for Milena Horvat

Source: Atlas of Science