Universiteit Leiden

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Large-scale European project identifies risks of nanoparticles

The large-scale project NanoInformatics will assess the risks associated with nanoparticles. The project will be funded by the EU with 6.8 million euros and was launched at the beginning of this year. Three scientists from Leiden are involved. 'For the first time, this project combines the various experts from all kinds of parties working on ecotoxicity.'

Safe design

These Leiden scientists are Agur Sevink of the Leiden Institute of Chemistry and Willie Peijnenburg and Martina Vijver of the Institute of Environmental Sciences Leiden. Sevink describes the problem: 'When nanoparticles (see box) enter our environment, there are all kinds of safety risks. In order to limit these risks, the EU wants to draw up a new safe-by-design strategy in which nanomaterials are designed to reduce or avoid the risks of this toxicity from the start.’

Nanoparticles

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.

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’.

Nanodatabase

Because the environment is dynamic and different everywhere, interactions with nanoparticles are difficult to predict. It is therefore hard to say what adverse effects will occur. 'With NanoInformatics we want to clarify how and to what extent the various nanoparticles are harmful to the environment,' says Sevink. ‘We are going to expand the current EU database for nanotoxicity, develop better indicators for toxicity and create new models that can, among other things, replace animal testing for new nanomaterials.’ In addition, NanoInformatics also wants to develop a new information system that is based on the entire life cycle of nanoparticles in the environment. The industry, policy makers and other parties can use this system to assess risks and design safer products.

Expertise combined

'For the first time, this project combines the expert knowledge of all very diverse parties working on ecotoxicity,' says Sevink enthusiastically. 'From the physicochemical side to data management and the design of a platform'. The project has 36 partners from 21 different countries. In addition to partners from the EU, a number of partners from outside the EU have joined at their own expense. Leiden mainly brings expertise in statistical (Peijnenburg), ecological (Vijver) and physical (Sevink) modelling. 'First of all, we will be exchanging knowledge and ideas with all these different communities', says Sevink. 'This will enable us to define the common grounds that are necessary for the next steps of the project. Together we will try to make nanomaterials safer'.

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