In my time working at UQ, I was lucky to connect with the excellent researchers at the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS). They’re a dedicated and passionate group of people, who are focused on chemicals and material environmental contaminants that human life and consumption had deposited there. From tyre particles to PFAS to micro and nano-plastics, their scope is wide.
Not only are they experienced field and lab-based scientists, they’re open minded enough to work with someone like me, in the humanities. This is impressive, uncommon, and inspiring. Their genuine commitment to the best knowledge possible towards the most effective change in how we take care of the ecologies we’re part of is a model.
One of the incredible things I learned about when visiting them, was the plastic-minimised lab – the Minderoo Centre – Plastics and Human Health – they were building in order to more effectively study micro and nano-plastics. Their size – nano plastics are the size of viruses and can sit inside our cells! – makes it very difficult to ensure sterile, controlled and non-contaminated research spaces. I mean how do you eliminate plastic containments from your research about plastic, when plastic is such a huge part of life, research and science. From benchtops to light switches to paint to fabrics and so on, creating a space in which plastic are eliminated is a huge challenge.
At QAEHS, they accessed funding to do their best to build one of the world’s first, purpose-built, plastic-free labs. After a lot of collaboration and conversation, it became clear that it was not possible, in part because of safety concerns (e.g. the need for non-conducive light fittings). But a plastic-minimised lab was possible, the QAEHS scientists are at work in the lab as I type.
This recent podcast episode from UQ, ‘Not so fantastic: is there plastic in my brain?’, gives a sense of the QAEHS scientists’ work on micro and nano-plastics, as well as the complexity of building a plastic free research space. In the episode, two of my favourite QAEHS folk, Professor Kevin Thomas and Dr Cassie Rauert, as well as collaborating, Emerita Professor Sarah Dunlop, talk about the lab, and the challenges of dealing with plastics in our environments.
This episode is fantastic, and you can explore the QAEHS website to learn more about the work they’re doing, their findings, and the plastic-minimised lab.