July 23, 2010

Five University of Kentucky College of Agriculture scientists are part of a newly established consortium that will investigate the environmental and human health implications of nanotechnology. The four-year, $4 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the United Kingdom's Environmental Nanoscience Initiative will fund the consortium known as the Transatlantic Initiative for Nanotechnology and the Environment. The consortium will conduct research to determine the environmental behavior, bioavailability and effects of manufactured nanomaterials in ecosystems on land. 

The Kentucky scientists working on the project are Paul Bertsch, Nadine Kabengi, David McNear, Olga Tsyusko and Jason Unrine. All are faculty members in the UK Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. In addition, the consortium includes 11 scientists from the United Kingdom, two from Carnegie Mellon University and two from Duke University. Bertsch is the project leader of the consortium.

"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," Bertsch said.  "Accumulating evidence suggests that sewage sludge or biosolids generated from wastewater treatment will be a major source of manufactured nanomatierals to terrestrial ecosystems."

About 60 percent of the 8 million tons of biosolids annually produced in the United States and the United Kingdom are applied to agricultural lands, and these applications are often made to the same fields year after year. 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. 

"Our consortium has 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," Bertsch said.

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 ecoreceptors and humans. 

Bertsch and Unrine are currently project leads in the National Science Foundationand EPA-funded Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology or CEINT, which is based at Duke University. The new international consortium will leverage the infrastructure and intellectual capital of CEINT to build on the activities, strengths and synergies created by the existing center. In addition to the Kentucky and Duke scientists, the center includes researchers from Carnegie Mellon, Howard University, Virginia Tech and Stanford University.

News Topics: