Moving Up the Food Chain

As they transfer to higher organisms in a food web, nanomaterials can increase in concentration, according to scientists. In recent years, studies have shown that nanomaterials from consumer products and other sources enter the environment through waste streams and get filtered by treatment plants. Most of these materials end up in sludge that is applied to farmland, and the rest go back into the water supply.

A research team led by Dr. Yongsheng Chen, associate professor of environmental engineering at Georgia Tech, and and immunologist Yung Chang of Arizona State University is investigating the effects of nanotechnology on the environment and its web of organisms. The team's findings appeared in the March 14, 2011 issue of Chemical & Engineering News (Volume 89, Number 11; pp. 44 - 46; DOI:10.1021/CEN030811155447).

Concern about the safety of nanomaterials has grown significantly over the past decade as their inclusion in consumer products has increased.  This multidisciplinary research effort is looking at various aspects of this issue to get in front of potential environmental implications.

Chen explains that current safety standards for chemicals are mainly based on acute toxicity levels. However, acute toxicity might not be relevant to chronic exposure to nanomaterials. Chronic exposure could affect an entire population’s dynamics—and the balance of life in the aquatic food chain. Such cascading effects could cause more damage than a one-time, high-level exposure would by killing a few fish, he contends.

Research into the potential ecological effects of nanomaterials is still relatively new, but it is quickly proving to be very significant in terms of both public perception and regulation.

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