They are smaller than many bacteria. Laid end to end, 100 of them would barely span the thickness of a human hair.
These are nanoparticles, and they are transforming everyday products such as food colouring and cosmetics.For all we know, they may also be harming our health.
Now, for the first time, scientists are setting out to find out just what nanoparticles do when they mix with other common pollutants like exhaust fumes, tobacco smoke and oil leaks. The fear is that, because they are so reactive, they might magnify the harmful effects of traditional pollutants.
A trans-European team led by Plymouth University’s Prof Awadhesh Jha will be using mussels to evaluate the potential of nanoparticles to increase the risks of developing diseases such as cancer.
The study aims to find out how nanoparticles react with common pollutants collectively known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are present throughout our environment.
The scientists will use mussels to investigate whether the complex mixtures produced by these reactions could also have a detrimental impact on human and environmental health.
Marine molluscs and human beings may seem to be at opposite ends of the evolutionary spectrum. Yet many of our shared genes have remained unchanged over millions of years, making mussels an ideal subject to test the impact of environmental toxins. Professor Jha said: “Man-made nanoparticles are of tremendous technological and economic interest and have a wide range of potential applications.
“But they have properties which make them potentially reactive, and these particles are being discharged into the environment alongside other pollutants.
“The risks of the mixtures they create with nanoparticles have never been fully evaluated.”
Professor Jha, professor of ecotoxicology at Plymouth University, added: “Understanding for the first time how these particles interact will have positive global impacts across government and industry.
“The combined effect of contaminants has been a burning issue for scientific and regulatory communities, and assessing their potential human impact is crucial to ensure we have measures in place to protect both our health, and that of our environment, while harnessing their potential benefits.”
The three-and-a-half year study, funded with more than £750,000 from the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC), will see scientists from Plymouth working alongside colleagues from the University of Nottingham, King’s College London and the Universita del Piemonte Orientale, Alessandria in Italy.