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By Examining Aquatic Life, MU Study Explores Environmental Effects of Nanomaterials

July 12, 2007

Story Contact:  Bryan Daniels, 573-882-9144,

COLUMBIA, Mo. — In short time, nanotechnology has contributed greatly to scientific research. However, unknown about this popular and continuously emerging field are the environmental effects — particularly to aquatic life. A new study at the University of Missouri-Columbia will attempt to provide answers.

Baolin Deng, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, and Hao Li, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, have begun a project that focuses on nanomaterials and their effects — if any — on aquatic organisms. The researchers, who received $399,506 from the Environmental Protection Agency, are working with carbon nanotubes, nanofibers and silicon carbide nanowires, which are found in hydrogen storage devices, insulating materials and common consumer devices like electronics. These nanomaterials, which also often contain heavy metals, are strong compounds that don't dissolve or easily break down, Deng said.

Over a three-year period, the researchers will monitor toxicity levels and examine the materials' effect on freshwater mussels, worms and amphipods, which resemble shrimp.

“Nanotechnology has tremendous potential,” Deng said. “People are talking about nanotechnology revolutionizing the world. With this type of potential, we have to know the environmental and human health dangers. If we find that some applications have the potential to harm the environment and endanger human health, we have to avoid using such materials or make sure there's a risk management plan in place at the least.”

He said aquatic life is exposed to nanomaterials in a variety of ways. They include:

  • When consumer items utilizing these materials are discarded or placed in water where aquatic creatures live.
  • Through the disposal of nanoparticle waste in aquatic environments following manufacturing.
  • From damaged or leaking products utilizing nano-composite materials.
  • By human accident during transport and usage.

“With carbon nanotubes, for example, there are so many applications,” Deng said. “We already have several hundred consumer products that use the technology around the world. We really don't know much about the environmental impact of these materials. We have all types of organisms that are exposed to these materials, and that exposure could potentially disrupt the food chain or change the ecological environment.”

The study will be conducted in lab settings at MU in collaboration with Chris Ingersoll and Ning Wang, both aquatic toxicologists, at the Columbia Environmental Research Center of the US Geological Survey.