Environmental Pollution Cluster

“What do I do first?”, seems to be a simple question. However, for decision-makers facing the complex challenges of environmental pollution that affect natural resources, economy, and our health, sustainable answers are exceptionally complex. By definition, the environment comprises many components, numerous processes, complex interconnections and feedback mechanisms. Consequently, uncertainty about physical, chemical and biological processes in such "natural ecosystems" is further increased by adding substances from anthropogenic production to these systems. Decision-makers could be forgiven for not knowing where to begin.

Today’s environmental pollution research highlights a number of priority topics that have to be faced by scientists and decision-makers dealing with environmental and human health issues:

  1. Traditionally, toxicological studies focus on single chemicals. However, recent events highlighted the need to understand effects of complex mixtures of components and their role in the environment.
  2. Industry, agriculture and medicine release emerging contaminants and compound classes that are not yet considered in monitoring programs, air and water purification systems, and waste site controlling (e.g. engineered inorganic nanoparticles, neonicotinoids of the 5th and 6th generation).
  3. There has been great effort to study the fate, occurrence and ecotoxicology of pollutants in the environment. However, toxicological effects and fate of metabolites, transformation and degradation products of many pollutants is still largely unknown.

The five groups (four units) involved in this cluster application address already several aspects of environmental pollution research and political decision making. The future integrative research in the cluster ‘Environmental Pollution: Processes, Spatial Scales and Political Decision making’ aims to combine their existing knowledge on environmental behaviour of pollutants and decision making for sustainable development through interdisciplinary discussions and joint research. To reach this goal, the cluster will jointly focus on four “case studies” in Switzerland: (1) The Wohlensee (metals and volatile metal compounds, methane formation, microfiber), (2) the region Visp-Raron (mercury and nickel pollution), (3) application of fertilizer and plant protection products at Swiss agricultural sites, (4) sediment archives in small eutrophic lakes with intense agriculture in the Swiss Plateau (Moossee, Burgäschisee) uncovering a high resolution record of  persistent organic pollutants (pesticides form agriculture), nutrient contamination (phosphate) and heavy metal deposition, and toxic algae related to anoxia as a consequence of nutrient release and climate warming.

The ‘Environmental Pollution’ cluster will focus on two central research aims:

  1. The development of land-use planning and remediation strategies for sites, which are polluted with a mixture of substances whose antagonistic or synergistic mixture effects are already well known or can be determined (case study 1). For this site, mechanistic and numeric models that will evaluate the fate, impact and possible feedback mechanisms of the substances mixtures under varying land-use and remediation strategies will be developed as a basis for local environmental decision making under consideration of antagonistic interests of stakeholders and involved parties.
  2. The development of measurement methods and analysis protocols for the fate, occurrence, ecotoxicology and persistence of emerging pollutants and their metabolites as well as complex substance mixtures in the environment, for which standardized measurement protocols are not available yet and environmental mixture effects largely unknown. These novel analytical tools will form the basis for legislation and regulation progresses concerning such substances and mixtures in Switzerland and the EU.

The research cluster will mainly focus on the border areas between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems (floodplains, lakes and their immediate environment). These ecosystem areas are particularly sensitive to environmental pollution. We also limit ourselves to two groups of substances: plant protection products and heavy metals. According to the European Environmental Information and Environmental Observation Network, these two groups of substances are quantitatively one of the most important exposure classes. .

To study the fate and effects of complex mixtures of pollutants, emerging pollutants, metabolites and transformation products and their implications on environmental policy and decision making, and to answer the central research aims we will jointly focus on four “case studies” in Switzerland:

  1. The Wohlensee near Bern. The Wohlensee was polluted in the past by the wastewater of the city of Bern, local paper production, inadequately protected landfills and sewage from the motorway. Today, the pollutants are stored in the sediment and allow an analysis of the history of the load. The lake produces large quantities of methane and the question arises whether volatile metal (oid) compounds are released into the environment.
  2. The region Visp-Raron in the Valais is impacted by natural high metal contents in rocks of the surrounding valleys. These high metal contents have geogenic reasons but may cause the release of contaminated sediments, which are then transported and sedimented in the floodplains soils in the region of Visp and Raron. Additional the chemical company Lonza has a big chemical plant in Visp. This plant produces chemical substances for decades and released a number of pollutants in the environment. Most prominent is the release of tons of mercury into the Grossgrundkanal, a channel which connects the plant to the River Rhone. This channel has been dredged several times and the sediments have been distributed to the surrounding agricultural sites and house gardens, leaving the whole area between Raron and Visp highly contaminated with mercury.
  3. Agricultural sites in Switzerland receive a number of different fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals like growth regulators. Mineral phosphate fertilizers may contain high concentrations of the toxic metals cadmium and uranium, which might accumulate in the soil and be transferred to crops, ground and surface waters. Manure, as a second important nutrient source in agriculture contains elevated concentrations of copper and zinc, which are added to the food of the livestock to promote growth and may have adverse effects on soil microbial communities and fertility.  Besides metals a broad variety of pesticides is regularly applied to many agricultural sites. As an example, apple plantations in Switzerland receive pesticides 20 times a year.  Different pesticides are combined to attack different groups of organisms and prevent resistances. However, there is few information about the combined effects of these pesticides and their metabolites and transformation products and about the combined effects of added metals. Besides accumulation in soils and effects on soil fertility, these compounds might be transferred to crop plans, ground and surface water and finally enter the human food chain.
  4. Sediments of small eutrophic lakes with intense agriculture on the Swiss Plateau (Moossee, Burgäschisee) may contain a wide variety of persistent organic pollutants, metals and toxic algae. One the one hand the sediments can be used as natural archives to reconstruct pollution history in Switzerland on the other hand these sediments might be dredged and applied to agricultural sites. Under the strongly changing conditions after the application, however, pollutants might be released to agricultural sites with the consequences described above.

The research groups contributing to this cluster have broad experience in studying environmental pollution, remediation, spatial distribution, analytical method development, and occurrence of contaminants, their half-life time, and functioning in different ecosystem compartments. Additionally, their research has been concerned with multicriteria assessment of environmental policy, stakeholders' role in environmental policy, decision making for future environmental management strategies, and participation in sustainable development.



The cluster offers the lecture “Challenges in Geography II”, which takes place each spring semester. More Information about this course is available on the Core Teaching System (CTS).

Bachelor and Master Theses

The cluster offers several topics for Master theses. Each topic could be also addressed within a Bachelor thesis. For further details, please contact the respective supervisor. You may also suggest a own topic, for that please contact Dr. Klaus Jarosch (klaus.jarosch@giub.unibe.ch).

Seminar series

The cluster Environmental Pollution organizes a seminar series on different perspectives of environmental pollution. We invite experts from legislation, execution and research to share their insights on pollutants on various levels (cantonal, national, international). Everyone interested is cordially invited to attend, not registration is required.