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Nanotechnology Research

Researchers Investigate Ecological Effects of Nanomaterials


The rapid growth of commercial and industrial products and processes containing nanomaterials offers the potential for their appearance in our natural world: in soil, plants, wildlife, fish, and microorganisms. Their presence may be the result of manufacturing plant effluents, disposal of nano-based consumer products into landfills and surface or ground water, or direct application as a registered product.

Research is under way to determine the potential for ecological risk and possible benefits associated with products using nanotechnology. Since this is a new technology, very few studies have been conducted that assess the potential effects on ecosystems.

A greater understanding is needed of the potential for nanomaterials to accumulate in the environment. It is not yet clear how these materials may accumulate in organisms and cross important cell membranes and if that can impact the health of the affected organism. Because nanomaterials are often engineered to have very specific properties, they may have toxicological effects that would not be predicted based solely on the constituents of the particle.

New assessment and predictive tools are needed to prioritize and identify which nanomaterials may pose harm and what testing and further evaluation is needed.

Nanomaterials have unique physical and chemical properties that influence their potential for toxicity. Therefore, novel approaches are being developed for understanding how to measure nanomaterials in the environment and determine how much exposure may cause an adverse response. At the same time, scientists need to know how nanomaterials may get distributed after a release as well as how they are transported and where they end up.

Scientific Objective:

EPA researchers are studying nanomaterials to determine their ecological effects, develop ways to measure them in the environment and predict possible exposures to the environment.

Initially, researchers will evaluate methods used in traditional assessments to determine toxicity in ecosystems to ascertain their adequacy and applicability in evaluating manufactured nanomaterials. They are also focusing on the physical and chemical factors that make nanomaterials unique and would require modifying traditional tests to determine potential toxic effects.

Research questions include the following:

  • Which nanomaterials pose the greatest potential risk to the environment?
  • What biological mechanisms underly ecological effects of nanomaterials?
  • What new methods and models must be developed to accurately predict the potential for ecological risk of manufactured nanomaterials?
  • What magnitude and route of exposure results in an adverse response to an organism?

Application and Impact

Nanotechnology research will provide EPA offices and others the scientific tools to identify and manage potential adverse impacts to the environment from the intentional or accidental release of manufactured nanomaterials. The research will provide guidance that will assist in regulatory reviews and assessments of nanomaterials to protect the environment.


William Boyes (boyes.william@epa.gov), National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, EPA's Office of Research and Development, 919-541-7538.