Noelle Selin: Tracing toxins around the world

Atmospheric chemist takes on pollutants and the global treaties written to control them.

MIT Noelle Selin A1 Press Brauer Web
MIT associate professor Noelle Selin uses atmospheric chemistry models to understand how international environmental treaties and regulations affect the transport of toxins. Photo, M. Scott Brauer

In 1995, the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Program called for a united, global effort to reduce persistent organic pollutants (POPs) — synthetic chemicals such as PCBs, DDT, and dioxins. The compounds were known to persist and accumulate far from their sources, polluting the environment and causing adverse health effects in humans.

As work on a global treaty progressed, Noelle Eckley Selin, then a college intern at the Environmental Protection Agency, had the opportunity to play a small part in the process that eventually produced the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. She was tasked in 1997 with evaluating potential chemicals as add-ons to the “dirty dozen” that the treaty proposed to regulate.

“The treaty was designed as a dynamic instrument, so countries could add chemicals to it to respond to emerging threats,” recalls Selin, now a tenured associate professor in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “But the EPA wanted to know what scientific criteria to use to choose those substances. So I had to go into the dusty basement of the EPA and look up how long these random chemicals persisted in the environment.”

Selin presented her findings to EPA officials, including the agency’s assistant administrators.

“That experience gave me the sense that even as an undergrad with some scientific knowledge, I had a lot to contribute,” Selin says. “It really introduced me to toxics in the environment, which is the entire theme of my research group now, and also highlighted the connection between basic science and international politics.”

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Jennifer Chu | MIT News Office
October 22, 2017