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Are beaches safe to enjoy? Establishing baselines and methods to assess sandy beaches risk to human and environmental health

  • School: School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2023
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2023

Project ID: ARES6

Sandy beaches are dynamic environments that make up two-thirds of the world’s ice-free coastlines. They are complex environments, influenced both by the land and the sea, and natural and man-made processes, which form, shape and modify them continuously.  Beach pollution is a sensitive issue due to their immense value: both economically and as a resource for recreation.  But, whilst the water quality, biodiversity and conservation of beaches are systematically studied and reported there has been no attempt to consider the make-up of the sediments that make up the beach (except for estuarine environments). Furthermore, beach sediments are also pollution traps that can work as a sink for a range of pollutants – and this has also not been studied.

We propose to fill these gaps – to establish a method and a baseline for assessing and classifying the environmental biogeochemistry and associated pollution of beaches and understand the potential risks to human and environmental health. The study intends to use an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach to study sandy beach ecosystems, aiming to evaluate the presence of different types of contaminants, their dynamics and apportionment, the links with beaches’ environmental health and the potential human exposure to contaminants. Earth Observation data and GIS will be also used to look at environmental pressures on sandy beaches due to coastal erosion / sea level rise and encroaching building development from the landward side.

The presence of microplastics (MP), and the concentrations of potentially harmful elements (PHEs), and persistent and bioaccumulative organic contaminants (PBOCs) will be investigated in sediment samples from selected popular and geologically heterogeneous sandy beaches. Human exposure will be assessed by measuring the bioavailability of the contaminants, using in vitro, physiologically based extraction methods, while the assessment of beaches’ environmental health will be done with an integrated approach using macrofauna species as ecological indicators. Additionally, the use of PHE stable isotopes will provide insights into the origin of these elements within the sediment samples, typically allowing for reliable fingerprinting of their source.

The outcomes of this investigation will provide vital information to public health and environment management agencies about the state of beaches. Information on MP, PHEs and PBOCs species and concentrations in beach sediment and their bioavailable fraction has the potential to fill a substantial gap in the scientific literature, which will inform the development of a risk map based on human and environmental health exposure considering these contaminants and their pathways. In the longer term, the results and models developed from this project will be able to promote an easily accessible and understandable warning system for public health.

Supervisory Team:

Marcello Di Bonito (ARES, NTU)

Quentin Crowley (Trinity College Dublin, Ireland)

David Kilgour (SST, NTU).

Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

To make an application, please visit our studentship application page.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2023 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Application guidance can be found on our studentship application page.

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