A sewage treatment works © Shutterstock

A sewage treatment works © Shutterstock

Scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) are to join a UK-US consortium that will investigate the environmental and human health implications of nanotechnology.  The CEH researchers will be collaborating with scientists from Rothamsted Research, Cranfield University, and Lancaster University in the UK, and with scientists from the University of Kentucky, Carnegie Mellon University and Duke University in the US.

The consortium, known as the Transatlantic Initiative for Nanotechnology and the Environment (TINE), is funded by a four-year grant from the UK Environmental Nanoscience Initiative and the US Environmental Protection Agency, worth over $US4 million (£2.5 million). The consortium will conduct research to determine the environmental behaviour, bioavailability and effects of manufactured nanomaterials in terrestrial ecosystems.  Professor Paul Bertsch (University of Kentucky) is the project leader of the consortium, Professor Steve McGrath (Rothamsted Research) is the UK PI and Dr Steve Lofts is the Principal Investigator for CEH.

"Manufactured nanomaterials are increasingly used in consumer products and significant quantities of certain nanomaterials are being released to the environment as a result of this increased usage, eventually ending up in the wastewater stream," Professor Bertsch said.  "Accumulating evidence suggests that sewage sludge or biosolids generated from wastewater treatment will be a major source of manufactured nanomaterials to ecosystems on land."

About 60 percent of the 8 million tons of biosolids annually produced in the United States and the United Kingdom are applied to agricultural land, and these applications are often made to the same fields. Research has shown more than 90 to 95 percent of certain nanomaterials, such as nanosilver, end up in biosolids. Thus, land-applied biosolids can become an important source of nanomaterials in soil where they can be taken up by microorganisms, nematodes, earthworms or plants, with the potential for transfer up the food chain to animals and humans. Runoff and erosion from agricultural lands receiving biosolid applications can also introduce nanomaterials directly into streams and rivers which could have an adverse effect on aquatic organisms and potentially introduce nanomaterials to drinking water supplies. 

Professor McGrath said, "We have assembled some of the world's top scientists working on the fate, transport, bioavailability and toxicity of nanomaterials in terrestrial systems, as well as those working in the area of assessing the risks associated with the release of nanomaterials to the environment."

The consortium will conduct research to quantify the amount of nanomaterials added to soil via biosolids, examine how nanomaterials introduced into the waste stream are modified in the waste treatment process and in soil, and how this influences their transport or uptake by plants, animals and other organisms, as well as assess the relative risks to eco-receptors and humans. 

The role of the CEH scientists within the project will be to test the effects of nanoparticles on earthworms and to interpret and model the outcomes of these toxicity tests for field situations. This work will link closely with a big EU funded project coordinated by CEH, namely “Nanoparticle Fate Assessment and Toxicity in the Environment” (NanoFATE).

Dr Steve Lofts, CEH PI, said, “Soil invertebrates such as earthworms are a vital part of soil ecosystems and so it is important to know how they might be affected by nanoparticles entering the soil in media like sewage sludge. We hope that our planned work in the TINE project, in close collaboration with our UK and US partners, will enable us to improve our understanding and prediction of these effects. ”.

The other project partners include the University of Chicago, the University of Vienna, the University of South Australia, Oxford University and Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Additional information

The Transatlantic Initiative for Nanotechnology and the Environment (TINE) is part of phase 2 of the Environmental Nanoscience Initiative (ENI), which was first launched in 2006. Scientists from the UK and USA will collaborate on three major research projects.  The ENI’s UK partners and the US Environmental Protection Agency have jointly invested more than £7m (over US$ 11m) in this research. The research is being jointly funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council, Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council, Medical Research Council, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Health and the Environment Agency, together with the US Environmental Protection Agency.

More information on CEH research can be found via our news archives and via the Water, Biodiversity and Biogeochemistry science programme pages.




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