Silver nanoparticles: technological marvel or the next big environmental pollutant?

30 November 2015

Research from the University of Derby has found that nanoparticles, which are used in a wide range of commercial products, can be damaging to the environment.

Silver nanoparticles can be found in food packaging, clothing, washing machines and even in medical transplant procedures.

The research paper titled: ‘Soil contamination with silver nanoparticles reduces Bishop pine growth and ectomycorrhizal diversity on pine roots’ was published by Michael Sweet, Lecturer in Invertebrate Biology at the University of Derby, and Dr Ian Singleton, Senior Lecturer from the University of Newcastle.

The paper shows how such contamination in soil can significantly affect growth of trees such as the Bishop pine, by 57% reduction in root biomass.

This increasing use in nanoparticles in modern materials means they will find their way into environmental systems.

Michael said: “The nanoparticles can escape from lots of things, particularly washing machines as they escape into the water column. They are also used as pesticides and fertilisers so widely escape into the environment.”

Previous research into the potential environmental threats of silver nanoparticles has mainly focused on particular areas, such as their influence in rivers and estuaries or their effect on organisms such as earthworms and plants.

This new research also revealed that there is a need to focus studies on all aspects of the microbial world and to highlight potential risks and methods of overcoming problems before significant damage is done.

Kedleston campus looking towards the library

A study is currently underway at the University of Derby to expand the research into the effects heavy metal nanoparticles have on important agricultural crop species such as mustard and wheat. Preliminary data shows that a similar pattern occurs with reduced growth and delayed germination occurring in soil contaminated by these nanoparticles.

Michael added: “The concern is that we are using this exciting new technology without thinking about the potential effects they will have once they are released into the environment.

“Nanoparticles are already starting to 'escape' into the natural environment all over the world and over the next few years we will start to see some potentially devastating results, like declines of microbial species and even reduction in plant growth.

“Few people worry about the effects certain products have on microbial communities in the natural world as we believe they are relatively indestructible and will always be around.

However, damaging certain important microbes (like those in the human gut for example) have severe knock on effects to our health - something we are already starting to see with an increase in people showing stomach problems in today's day and age.

“If we can then move this research on to show links with human ingestion obviously people will start to panic much more so.

“The work we are doing now builds on this paper whereby we are looking at the effects nanoparticles have on crops. If we show a similar effect to that witnessed in the pine trees not only will this be a problem for sustaining food production but will have an obvious economical issue associated with reduced yield.”