Could a healthier environment change our lives?

A team of UQ researchers is working to understand how environmental stressors are impacting humanity

Dead fish washed up on the bank of a river.

Image: Adobe Stock/neena_na

Image: Adobe Stock/neena_na

Humanity is facing a series of unprecedented challenges.

Researchers have long raised concerns about what impact environmental stressors could have on human life.

In 2021, environmental stressors, such as COVID-19, climate change, seafood sustainability and water quality, have never been more prominent.

But a team of researchers from The University of Queensland (UQ) is working tirelessly to prevent catastrophe.

The Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (QAEHS) aims to improve human health through environmental health science.

QAEHS brings together experts who have dedicated their careers to quantifying and combating potential threats to the environment and human health.

Its director, Professor Kevin Thomas, spoke to Research News about humanity’s greatest challenges going forward.

QAEHS PhD Candidate Elvis Dartey Okoffo’s research focuses on assessing plastics in biosolids.

QAEHS PhD Candidate Elvis Dartey Okoffo’s research focuses on assessing plastics in biosolids. Image: QAEHS

QAEHS PhD Candidate Elvis Dartey Okoffo’s research focuses on assessing plastics in biosolids. Image: QAEHS

  • What is QAEHS?

QAEHS is a research centre jointly funded by Queensland Health and The University of Queensland. Based at Woolloongabba in Brisbane, it is part of UQ’s Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences, bringing together expertise in the environmental health sciences from across UQ. QAEHS aims to improve human health by addressing local, national and global environmental health science challenges to achieve first-class outcomes in research, training and partnership engagement, while meeting the needs of Queensland and the wider community.

  • What is the biggest threat to human life currently, and what is the biggest threat to our environment?

I wouldn’t want to single out one particular threat to the environment as it faces multiple stressors. The environment is currently facing a number of threats: climate change, loss of biodiversity, water stress and pollution, to name a few. At QAEHS, we try to understand how some of these stressors potentially impact human health and find ways to mitigate any that are significant, with a particular focus on Queensland and Australia.

  • How do you determine which threats require QAEHS's attention?

QAEHS has a strong partnership with Queensland Health. Together we identify both current and emerging threats that are particularly relevant to our region. QAEHS researchers have very strong local and international networks, allowing us to stay at the forefront of research, both nationally and internationally.

  • Which QAEHS outcomes have had the greatest impact on the Australian public? 

It’s very difficult to rank a particular outcome as having the greatest impact on society. Of the most recent outcomes, I would point to QAEHS’s work, in collaboration with CSIRO, on developing a wastewater-based approach for COVID-19, as that has rapidly translated from a research project to being implemented in a state-wide surveillance program. It has been very rewarding for the team at QAEHS to contribute to the state’s response to the pandemic.

QAEHS's Dr Elissa O’Malley conducting wastewater analysis.

QAEHS's Dr Elissa O’Malley conducting wastewater analysis. Image: QAEHS

QAEHS's Dr Elissa O’Malley conducting wastewater analysis. Image: QAEHS

Last year, QAEHS released compelling and highly publicised research that revealed the level of microplastics in Australian seafood.

Research has shown that microplastics also enter our bodies from bottled water, sea salt, beer and honey, as well the dust that settles on our meals.

The research team found the total plastic concentration detected in each seafood species was 0.04mgs in squid, 0.07mgs in prawns, 0.1mg in oysters, 0.3mgs in crabs and 2.9mgs in sardines.

Netflix also released a documentary this year, Seaspiracy, about sustainable seafood, which investigated the damage the seafood industry was having on the environment and humanity.

  • How has this research changed the way you live? For example, do you no longer eat seafood?

I love seafood! I’m guessing that you’re referring to our recent work on plastics in seafood? Australian seafood is among the cleanest in the world. Farmed oysters, for instance, have a positive impact on where they are grown and are an incredibly sustainable source of protein. It can be challenging at times to understand which fish are the most sustainably caught, but establishing a good relationship with your local fish shop can easily help you make the right choices. I choose not to eat farmed salmon due to the impact open-pen salmon farming can have on the environment. Working for over a decade in Norway – one of the world’s largest producers of farmed salmon – really opened my eyes to how harmful the industry can be to the environment, as well as issues such as fish welfare and impacts on wild salmon stocks.

  • Some of QAEHS's findings are quite shocking. Which QAEHS discovery or research finding shocked you the most?

This isn’t directly linked to a QAEHS finding but I must admit to being quite naive when I arrived in Australia about issues around water quality in regional and remote Australia, especially for some remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. I had naively assumed in a developed country such as Australia that everyone would have access to clean water.

Professor Kevin Thomas

Professor Kevin Thomas is QAEHS Director and his research focuses on understanding environmental exposures associated with contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) with the goal of protecting environmental and human health.

Contact details:

Professor Kevin Thomas
Director, Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences


Phone: (07) 3443 2443