October 2012

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A small problem?

Nanotech is the new big (small) thing. The manipulation and control of materials on tiny scales, 800 to 80 000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, has the potential to revolutionise many fields; from medicine and electronics, to cosmetics and sport. Nanotechnology is already widely used in sunscreens, computers and clothing. In fact, over 800 nanotechnology based consumer goods are already available. However, these small particles may pose a big threat.

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Titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in cosmetics such as lipgloss (BASF - The Chemical Company)

Unfortunately we are already familiar with multiple forms of pollution; chemical, light and noise to name a few. But how many of us are aware of nanopollution? With the rise of nanotechnology this is becoming an increasing problem. Nanoparticles present in goods can be released into the environment. For example, anti-bacterial socks contain nanosilver. When these are washed nanosilver particles are released into the water. These particles make their way through the sewers and treatment works and are eventually released into rivers and lakes. Nano-titanium dioxide, found in nearly all sunscreens, can also enter water and is predicted to be present in high concentrations. Nanoparticles can also be released into the environment during their manufacture and the disposal of goods containing them. Once in the environment this pollution could pose a threat to animals and plants, but how much of a threat is unknown.

The rise in nanoscience has not been matched by research into nanoecotoxicology - the study of the effect of nanoparticles on different species and ecosystems. Laboratory studies have shown that once in the water nanoparticles can enter animals, especially filter feeders who take up the particles from the water when feeding. Predators are also at risk when they prey upon animals contaminated with nanoparticles. Even worse, nanoparticles can become concentrated in predators by biomagnification - prey may only contain a small number of nanoparticles each, but when a predator eats many prey they end up with a high concentration of nanoparticles in their tissues. These nanoparticles can irritate fish gills, cause behavioural changes in water fleas, and can be toxic.

However, most of this research takes place in labs using small communities of species and often single celled organisms. How nanoparticles affect complex ecosystems and interact with complex organisms is still unknown. Research is made even more complicated by the interactions between particles and their environment. Nanoparticles can clump together forming lager particles, and can become coated in sediments and proteins. This affects how they interact with species and the environment. Understanding this interplay of physical interactions between particles, and between particles and the environment, poses a new challenge to toxicologists used to studying the effects of chemical pollution.

It is also difficult to estimate in what concentrations nanoparticles are present. Their concentrations aren’t listed on most products, and there is no complete list of the products containing them. We have no idea of the current scale of nanopollution. This lack of information and lack of research means we could be on the brink of a new environmental threat and not even know it. Those small particles could pose a big problem.


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