Scientists seek to assess nanomaterial risks

Scientists from the UK and the US plan to discover what risks manufactured nanomaterials might bring to health and the environment.

The three projects that they are involved in form the second part of the so-called Environmental Nanoscience Initiative (ENI) which was launched in the UK in 2006.

The first phase received a huge amount of research interest and 17 projects were funded to address some of the many questions surrounding the use of nanoparticles.

Dr Pamela Kempton, head of research at the Natural Environment Research Council, said: ’Manufactured nanomaterials are already used in a wide range of consumer products, such as clothing, cosmetics and domestic cleaning materials. But we need to know much more about their potential effects on people, animals and plants.’

One of the ENI consortia — involving groups from Imperial College, the Health Protection Agency, as well as the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and Rutgers and Duke universities — will carry out a risk assessment for manufactured nanoparticles used in consumer products.

Earlier research has focused on the toxicities — the degrees to which the nanoparticles can affect organisms — at the source. It has also shown that nanomaterials can affect marine organisms and change the properties of chemicals they come into contact with. For this project, the researchers intend to evaluate the effect of the nanoparticles on people and aquatic animals at the point of exposure.

A second research team — comprising researchers from Birmingham and Napier universities, the Natural History Museum and Rice and Clemson universities, as well as the University of California, Davis — will investigate how the nanoparticles and nanotubes are transported into sewage-treatment systems, into soil, surface waters and sediments, as well as their toxicity and absorption into a range of organisms such as bacteria, algae, invertebrates and fish.

The third group — from Rothamsted Research, Cranfield University, the Oxfordshire Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Lancaster University, and the US universities of  Kentucky, Duke and Carnegie Mellon — will examine the rate and behaviour of nanomaterials carried into soils used for agriculture and absorbed into plants, bacteria and invertebrates such as worms. They will also be generating new data for use in risk-assessment models using a unique pilot-scale wastewater-treatment facility.

Overall, the researchers aim to provide key information about whether wildlife and humans are exposed to manufactured nanomaterials, and, if so, in what form.

The Environmental Nanoscience Initiative’s (ENI’s) UK partners and the US Environmental Protection Agency have jointly invested more than £7m (more than US $11m) in the research.