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August 6th, 2009
Most environmental research related to nanomaterials has focused on their toxicity in idealized lab settings. But researchers are slowly shifting their lab methods to look for real nanomaterials in the environment, which is key for determining which nanomaterials to study, as well as where and how they might cause harm.
Last year, researchers from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (Empa) demonstrated some early success: they traced titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles shed from the paint on building exteriors into soils nearby and possibly streams (Environ. Pollut. 2008, DOI 10.1016/j.envpol.2008.08.004). The team used electron microscopy to detect the nanoparticles and bulk chemical analysis to confirm their presence. But finding the nanoparticles in the environment is just one part of the problem.
"The task that we have actually is to separate the particles from the surrounding background," says Frank von der Kammer of the University of Vienna. That's because some nanoparticles occur naturally or are shed from products that take advantage of a material's normal size—or "bulk" form. For example, a large amount of bulk TiO2 has been used for decades as a paint pigment and for other applications. This bulk form can release tagalong nanoparticles. The presence of either type of TiO2 in the environment could throw off measurements of the engineered nanoparticles.
American Chemical Society
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