Understanding our environment, therefore, requires an understanding of environmental chemistry

Principles of environmental chemistry 

R M Harrison (ed) 

Cambridge, UK: Royal Society of Chemistry | 2007 | 273pp | ?39.95 (HB) | ISBN 9780854043712 

Reviewed by Mathew Heal

The environment in which we live is composed of elements and their compounds - gases in the atmosphere, dissolved species in fresh and salt waters, organic and inorganic matter in soils and sediments. Understanding our environment, therefore, requires an understanding of environmental chemistry. Why is there an ozone layer? How do clays and humic material form? What controls the mobilisation of metals such as arsenic, lead or aluminium into natural waters? Why do some pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) accumulate in ecosystems far removed from their source?  

All these and many more aspects of environmental chemistry are comprehensively described in Principles of environmental chemistry. Although a new title, this book has a distinguished pedigree, being an updated and expanded version (effectively a 4th edition) of part of the previous RSC title Understanding our environment, also edited by R M Harrison. This new volume is unashamedly a book by environmental chemists for (environmental) chemists and consequently significant knowledge of chemical principles such as equilibrium thermodynamics and kinetics is assumed and applied. Not a textbook in the modern style of containing copious illustrations and heuristic text, the chapters are more akin to authoritative review articles, but are nevertheless written with the university-level chemistry student firmly in mind. 

The primary focus of the content is a description of the chemistry of the various environmental media, rather than of pollutant chemistry per se, although inevitably the latter features frequently in case examples. The main chapters deal with chemical processes in the atmosphere, freshwaters, oceans, and soils as separate compartments, while two further chapters on environmental organic chemistry and biogeochemical cycling provide illustrative reminders that chemicals can and do distribute and migrate between compartments.  

Overall, an authoritative text that should deservedly feature on office and library shelves wherever there are chemists with interests in the environment.