In many ways, Prof. Bert van Bavel fits the popular image of an environmental scientist. The Netherlands native regularly participates in 150-kilometer bike races and resides in a charming antique farmhouse in the Swedish countryside, where he keeps sheep and chickens and tends a garden.
But even though Prof. van Bavel has been credited with helping to uncover the global spread of environmental toxins, he is not an activist. “Many people think I'm against everything, but no,” he said. “If we know more, we learn more, and we get better avoiding health risks to people from harmful chemicals.”
Prof. van Bavel has made that pursuit of knowledge his life's work. It has led him from the Netherlands to Sweden to Japan to California and around the world on behalf of the Stockholm Convention, the United Nations, and Safe Planet, the United Nations Campaign for Responsibility on Hazardous Chemicals and Wastes.
It has also led him to a place of prominence in the global effort to safeguard health and the environment. Thanks to the efforts of Professor van Bavel and his colleagues around the world, levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) have dropped significantly over the past 20 years.
His interest in science and the environment began when he first studied chemistry in high school. “I can't describe why, really. I was good at it and it was stimulating to me,” he said. “And then when I went to Amsterdam University, I encountered several people who had a big influence on me. One was my professor, Kees Olie, a toxicologist. Another was a professor named Nico Nibbering. And once when I was there doing some experiments, I met this gentleman and he started talking with us about mass spectrometry.”
He turned out to be Prof. Fred McLafferty, now Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Cornell University, a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and a pioneer of modern-day gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. “He made a very positive impact on me,” recalled Van Bavel. “He was interested in what I was doing, and I was interested in his work.”
These professors became his early mentors and led van Bavel to the study of environmental chemistry with Prof. Olie. In 1989, at the request of an environmental group, Prof. Olie analyzed milk from a farm near Rotterdam and discovered dangerously high levels of tetrachlorinated dioxins, highly toxic chemicals that result from incomplete burning of chlorinated hydrocarbons.
“Professor Olie was the first discoverer of dioxins on fly ash from municipal waste incineration,” said van Bavel. “Through him, I got interested in mass spectrometry and especially in the analysis of these dioxins.” When van Bavel received a scholarship to study abroad, he traveled to northern Sweden to work with Prof. Christoffer Rappe, another leading scientist in dioxin analysis, at Umeå University.
“I started on my Ph.D with a big project monitoring environmental pollutants in the Baltic Sea where levels of PCBs and dioxins are relatively high because of the pulp and paper industry,” he explained. “Using high-resolution mass spectrometry, our research progressed from dioxins to other POPs and slowly moved into brominated flame retardants.”
Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are chemicals that have routinely been added to consumer products, including TVs, computers, and household textiles, for several decades in an effort to reduce fire-related injury and property damage. Recently, concerns have arisen over the occurrence of several classes of BFRs in the environment and animal tissues.
Much of van Bavel's research relies on tissue samples collected from pilot whales near the Faroe Islands north of Denmark. “These pilot whales are like vacuum cleaners of the sea, and they accumulate all the pollutants,” he said. “Using mass spectrometry, my students and I were among the first to discover brominated flame retardants in whales and humans.”
Van Bavel's discovery was not well received by the bromine industry. “They said our results were not true, they were rubbish,” he recalled. “And of course we could confirm them anyway. And this became the starting point for brominated flame retardants being phased out as part of the Stockholm Convention.”
After earning his doctorate in environmental chemistry, van Bavel worked for a time at Kyoto University in Japan. In 2000, he and his wife Gunilla Lindström, a fellow environmental chemist, were recruited to Örebro University in Sweden. There, with Prof. Bert Allard, they created the MTM Research Center, which offers graduate studies in biogeosphere dynamics, environmental chemistry, and health and ecotoxicology.
The MTM Research Center has become a partner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), helping to build analytical capacity in developing countries and ensuring the quality of environmental data that goes into UNEP's global monitoring program. Van Bavel travels the world in this role.
“We do quality assurance and quality control,” said van Bavel. “Currently, I am organizing the biggest quality assurance study for dioxins together with more than 200 laboratories. Working on one of the largest human epidemiology to elucidate the relation between levels of POPs and health effects, he received in 2009 the prestigious Environmental Medical price from the Cancer and Allergy foundation.
As much as van Bavel enjoys all his advising and training work around the world, those activities are not the source of his greatest satisfaction.
“I like to be in the lab and do practical things on the mass spec,” he said. “It’s exciting if you have an extract from a polar bear and you find this compound that nobody has found before. Plus the challenge of looking at mass spectra and trying to find out what the compound is or what it’s not. That’s the intellectual challenge that I’m looking for.”