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Small but not harmless

To what extent do nanoparticles accumulate in plants and animals, and what properties of the particles play a part in this? Willie Peijnenburg, professor of Environmental toxicology and biodiversity was awarded a Marie Curie grant to conduct research on the environmental effects of nanoparticles.

Nanoparticles against sweat

Nanoparticles are particles  between 1 and 100 nm in size. Because of this small size, they have very specific properties, which are different from the properties of comparable particles of a larger size. On account of these often useful properties, nanoparticles are used in increasing quantities and in an increasing number of products. In clothing, for example, nanoparticles are used to prevent the smell of sweat. They can also be found in tennis rackets, electronics, food products, pesticides and car tyres.

Harmful effects

On the other hand, there are also concerns about the possible environmental effects of nanoparticles. It is precisely those specific properties and their small size that make nanoparticles more harmful than larger particles of the same substance. ‘The danger is that the tiny particles may accumulate in plants and animals, a process called bioaccumulation,’ Peijnenburg explains . ‘Next, the nanoparticles enter the human body via our food or drinking water’.

Marie-Curie grant

Little data on bioaccumulation is still available. To gain more insight in this, the research group of Willie Peijnenburg submitted an application for a Marie Curie grant. This was honoured in January 2018. Thanks to the grant, Fazel Abdolahpur Monikh from the University of Vienna can join the team. Over the next two years, he will work on the project as a postdoc.

The project focuses on the development and application of new research techniques for determining (the extent of) accumulated nanoparticles in aquatic organisms. The researchers will also examine to what extent specific properties of nanoparticles influence the degree of accumulation in flora and fauna. For example, they will look at the size of the particles, their shape and chemical composition and the presence of a coating on the outside of the nanoparticles.

Insights and nuance

It is expected that the nano-project will not only provide important insights into the environmental risks of nanoparticles, but also insights that are important for adjacent research areas. Consider the development of nanomedicines, nanopesticides and nanoplastics. ‘At the moment there is a particular fear among the general public about the consequences of the presence of micro- and nanoplastics in the environment. The results of this research will contribute to a more nuanced assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of the large-scale use of small particles in everyday products that are not always essential for the enjoyment of life,’ says Willie Peijnenburg.

The Marie Skolodowska Curie actions (MSCA) are an initiative of the European Commission. The MSCA provides scholarships to make it more attractive for researchers to work in Europe. The scholarships are suitable for researchers who want to work abroad. Individual researchers, researchers at knowledge institutions or companies can apply for a scholarship. Organisations and companies that want to hire a researcher from abroad can also apply for a scholarship. An amount of € 5.6 billion has been made available for the period 2013-2020.

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