Ecotoxicology, first christened in 1969, is a young discipline formulated in response to the environmental devastation caused by organochlorine pesticides and industrial pollutants. I was aware of all this when I joined the staff of the Natural Environment Research Council’s Institute of Terrestrial Ecology at Monks Wood in Cambridgeshire as an environmental chemist, where I would spend six years in the 1990s. The complexity of the science involved soon became apparent, and I was on a steep learning curve.
Getting to grips with the plethora of chemicals swimming around the environment - PCBs, PCDDS, PCDFs, PAHs, organochlorines, methylated lead, tin, mercury - was one thing; putting them in an ecological context was quite another. It was Ecotoxicology - a book written by Frank Moriarty, a former employee at Monks Wood, and first published in 1983 - that provided the rest of the skeleton around my chemical spine. Moriarty steers elegantly through this most interdisciplinary of sciences, where toxicology, genetics, population ecology and environmental chemistry intertwine, interacting with an ever-changing physical environment.
First and foremost, the text is a balanced account of the environmental consequences of the burgeoning 20th-century chemical industry, which takes neither the environmental alarmist nor the chemical company public relations view of the planet. Accordingly, the book’s accounts of the crisis caused by the widespread misuse of chemicals are more profound for having a deep academic basis.
Moriarty explains the impact of one particular chemical on one seemingly insignificant species at the base of a food chain, all the way up to the top predators. Damage one cog, no matter how small, and the clock may stop. This is exemplified by his and his colleagues’ seminal study on insects that picked up trace amounts of organochloro pesticides from sprayed fields. The concentration of chemicals built up at each step of the food chain - leading ultimately to the poisoning and population collapse of bird-of-prey populations such as kestrels and sparrowhawks, which suffered localised extinctions in Southeast England.
Teaching ecotoxicology now, I find myself returning to Moriarty’s book time and again. Though rival texts have since appeared, none has its unity and authority. It still challenges me as a researcher, particularly in its conviction that the most interesting questions lie at the borders of subject areas. And it reminds me that ecotoxicology can change the world for the better; sparrowhawks and kestrels are now seen again in the skies above Cambridgeshire.
Andy Meharg is professor of biogeochemistry, Aberdeen University.