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Professor Fath: Scientists should be activists

Photo: Braxart/HSF

Published

October 25, 2022

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Published:

October 25, 2022

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Chemistry Professor Andreas Fath from the HFU university in Furtwangen has swum along the Danube from its source in Germany to the Black Sea to highlight the water pollution issue and inspire people to protect the river and its biodiversity. His journey was filmed in a documentary called Beyond Bounds. It is key to bring the message to the population directly, he told Balkan Green Energy News. “Scientists should now be activists,” Fath pointed out.

Andreas Fath and his associates screened their Beyond Bounds documentary in Belgrade and presented the Clean Danube project. Most of the footage is from the spring of this year, when the German chemistry professor swam the entire Danube, 2,700 kilometers from the Black Forest in Baden-Württemberg to the Black Sea.

“You can only protect what you love. To fall in love with the water, you have to know it. You can see how the people in the documentary who live by the Danube are connected with it. We must bring people closer to water. People don’t normally read scientific papers; we are doing it through education on the spot. Scientists should be activists now. We can substitute fossil fuels with renewables, but we can’t replace bad and polluted water,” Fath stressed.

The Danube is longer than the Tennessee river and the Rhine combined

The piece was shot and edited by Shane McMillan, who accompanied the professor and a small crew on a boat on the two-month journey down Europe’s second-longest river. They met with local environmentalists and river enthusiasts and held workshops and lectures.

Andreas Fath has earlier swum the entire Rhine and the Tennessee river in the United States with the same goal: to raise awareness of water pollution and the fact the volumes of plastic waste reaching watercourses are rising and that they are breaking into hurtful microscopic particles.

Through the project, with the Association for Wildlife Protection (AWP), he is also trying to enhance appreciation of the Danube as a natural habitat and its vital significance for the people living along the river in ten countries. Of note, the river is longer than the Tennessee and the Rhine combined.

Scientists activists Fath Andreas
Photo: Shane McMillan / AWP

Microplastics carry dangerous chemicals like Trojan horse

Water samples were analyzed for pollution along the way in a mobile laboratory, with a focus on microplastics. The scientific team warned that for years now there are more plastic particulates floating through the Danube than fish larvae! And the number is growing. Furthermore, the Danube washes over four tons of plastics per day into the Black Sea.

As plastics break into smaller pieces, they spread into the ground and water and plants and get ingested and even inhaled by animals and people.

Chemicals like diclofenac and benzotriazole can enter the body via plastic particles

Many people aren’t aware of the issue, Andreas Fath asserted. “As humans can’t metabolize polymers, they normally exit the body within 24 hours. But it depends on the size. If the particle is small enough, it goes into the blood and organs. The worst part is that microplastics and nanoplastics are a Trojan horse. They contain additives and sometimes dangerous chemicals that adhere to their surface and enter the organism. In our research, we are analyzing the presence of micropollutants from households and the industry like diclofenac, sulfamethoxazole and benzotriazole,” he told Balkan Green Energy News.

The final results should be in by February. In the meantime, the immediate readings showed the oxygen concentration in the water begins a steep decline in Serbia. The presence of nitrates weakened downstream from the Black Forest but the levels of phosphorus grew.

swimming professor activists scientists
Photo: Shane McMillan / AWP

Belgrade, nuclear plant in Hungary were too risky

Andreas Fath drew massive media attention in Serbia and beyond when he declared he would skip Belgrade. The Danube is heavily polluted there with fecal matter, carrying the risk of infection with Escherichia coli and other pathogens. The capital city of Serbia has almost no wastewater treatment capacity, so sewage goes straight to the river.

The levels of oxygen also depend on the temperature, and the Danube was getting warmer as the expedition went further south and the weather improved. “Microorganisms consume organic matter like excrements, using oxygen, until the start of the anaerobic process. That’s when toxic gases are released, such as hydrogen sulfate, methane and ammonia,” Fath explained.

Oxygen levels in the Danube sharply dropped as the expedition traveled through Serbia and stayed low

The episode highlighted the risks from the lack of wastewater treatment along the Danube for both people and wildlife, on top of the urgent need for deposit systems for plastic packaging. Obviously, waste prevention strategies are ineffective in some riparian countries.

The 15 kilometers in Belgrade wasn’t the only troublesome stretch. When the expedition reached the Paks nuclear plant in Hungary, white foam from one of the auxiliary facilities was covering the water’s surface, the professor said. So he got back on the boat just to be safe and continued swimming three kilometers further.

Activists scientists swimming professor
Photo: Braxart/HSF

Plastics are actually good material

Fath clarified that he is no crusader against plastics. “As long as it stays in the loop of use, it is a good material. I am fighting for the introduction of a packaging bill for all single use plastics and not just bottles. If consumers can get their money back for things like the bags that bread is wrapped in, the industry can find a use for it. The future is in circular economy,” he stressed and pointed out that waste needs to be reduced, reused and recycled.

Plastic pieces become microplastics and nanoplastics, making the material harder to detect and measure

As for the scientific approach to studying microplastics, he acknowledged there is still no standard method. Researchers are analyzing different sizes and materials and looking for them in different places. As pieces get smaller and smaller, it gets more complicated to determine their presence, Fath said.

“Water is difficult for analysis. Like looking for a needle in a haystack. We first have to get rid of sand, flowers, insects, sediment… It is even more challenging with sediment, not to mention looking for microplastics in blood. We took samples from deeper areas of the river, where you actually find 90% of the plastic,” the professor noted.

We must treat wastewater where we create it

Climate change brings dry spells like the one we saw this year, when many major European rivers almost disappeared. Such events sharply increase the concentration of pollutants, jeopardizing the ecosystem. But Fath said there are more heavy rains as well – treatment capacities are sometimes insufficient to process everything at the end of the pipe, so wastewater finds its way around the filters and enters rivers.

“We have to treat where we create. In the industry, in hospitals and households, where pesticides, hormones and antibiotics are released,” the activist scientists underscored.

The swimming professor is optimistic as the project helped waste separation initiatives take hold in the Tennessee river area

Asked if there were any positive effects from his swimming efforts, Fath said there are local authorities in the south of the United States introducing the separation of plastics, biological waste, glass and wood. They are even considering the introduction of deposit systems for bottles for the first time, he added.

What about the next swimming season? “We are preparing educational programs to present the impact of plastics on animals and aquatic life to people. I may sometimes swim a track, but not a whole river,” Fath revealed.

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Professor Fath: Scientists should be activists

25 October 2022 - Chemistry Professor Andreas Fath from the HFU university in Furtwangen has swum along the Danube from its source in Germany to the Black Sea