Nanotechnology Now

Our NanoNews Digest Sponsors
Heifer International



Home > Press > Study: Nanoparticles produced from burning coal result in damage to mice lungs, suggesting toxicity to humans

Caption: Air pollution from coal-fired plant has been a major concern for air quality in such cities as Delhi, India, photographed here by Getty Images.
Caption: Air pollution from coal-fired plant has been a major concern for air quality in such cities as Delhi, India, photographed here by Getty Images.

Abstract:
Virginia Tech scientists have discovered that incredibly small particles of an unusual and highly toxic titanium oxide found in coal smog and ash can cause lung damage in mice after a single exposure, with long-term damage occurring in just six weeks.

Study: Nanoparticles produced from burning coal result in damage to mice lungs, suggesting toxicity to humans

Blacksburg, VA | Posted on February 5th, 2020

The tests were headed by Irving Coy Allen, a professor with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, with collaborators from across Virginia Tech and researchers at the University of Colorado, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, East Carolina University, and East China Normal University in Shanghai. The findings were recently published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Immunology.

They follow 2017 findings by Virginia Tech geoscientist Michael Hochella that burning coal — when smoke is not captured by high-end filters currently found in U.S. power plants — emits tiny particulates known as titanium suboxide nanoparticles into the atmosphere. Such nanoparticles were found by Hochella’s team of scientists in ash collected from the city streets, sidewalks, and in ponds and bays near U.S. and Chinese cities.

Using mouse models in a lab setting, these tiniest of nanoparticles — as small as 100 millionths of a meter — entered the lungs after being inhaled. Once inside the lungs, the nanoparticles encountered macrophages, the lungs’ defensive cells that trap and remove foreign materials. Typically, these cells protect the lungs from pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses. But against these nanoparticles, the macrophages falter.

“They can’t break the titanium nanoparticles down, so the cells begin to die, and this process recruits more macrophages. These processes begin a feedback loop with each round of dying cells concentrating around the nanoparticles,” said Allen, a member of the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology. “The dying, nanoparticle-containing cells then begin making deposits in the lungs and these deposits cause problems. We begin seeing negative impacts on lung function, and basically the lungs fail to continue to work correctly.”

In what Allen calls a “striking find,” his team discovered negative effects after only one exposure to the toxic nanoparticles. Long-term damage from the deposits can appear in as little as six weeks, raising concerns for highly polluted cities. “We realized if someone is living near a power plant, or near one of these coal burning sources, they wouldn’t be exposed to a single dose, they’d be exposed to this daily,” he said. “We also did not see lung clearance after a week, so when these things are in your lungs they are staying there, and they are staying there for an extended period of time.”

More so, damaged lungs can lead to higher susceptibility to virus or bacterial infection, and could worsen symptoms associated with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

However, the exact effects of these toxic nanoparticles on humans, other animals, vegetation, and water systems are not known and demand further study by international researchers, Allen said.

“Mouse and human lungs are functionally similar, but anatomically different in a variety of subtle ways,” Allen added. “While the studies done in this paper are commonly utilized to model airway disorders in people, more direct clinical data are necessary to fully understand the human impact of exposure to these nanoparticles.”

The titanium suboxide nanoparticles — called Magnéli phases by researchers — were once thought rare, found on Earth in some meteorites, from a small area of certain rocks in western Greenland, and occasionally in moon rocks. However, Hochella, working with other researchers in 2017, found that these nanoparticles are in fact widespread globally from the burning of coal.

According to the earlier study, published in Nature Communications, nearly all coal contains small amounts of the minerals rutile or anatase, both “normal,” naturally occurring, and relatively inert titanium oxides. But when burnt, these minerals convert to titanium suboxide. The nanoparticles then become airborne if the power plant is not equipped with high-tech particle traps, such as those in the United States. For countries without strict regulations, the nanoparticles can float away in air currents locally, regionally, and even globally, Hochella said. (He added that the United States first started using electrostatic precipitators on coal stacks in the 1920s.)

Early biotoxicity studies by Hochella’s group with zebra fish embryos showed signs of negative biological impact from the nanoparticles, suggesting potential harm to humans. Now, with this study, the odds of toxicity to humans are much greater. “The problem with these nanoparticles is that there is no easy or practical way to prevent their formation during coal burning,” said Hochella, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Geosciences with the Virginia Tech College of Science, upon the earlier study's release two years ago.

Hochella and his team came across the titanium suboxide nanoparticles quite by accident while studying the downstream movement of a 2014 coal ash spill in the Dan River of North Carolina. The group later produced the same titanium suboxide nanoparticles when burning coal in lab simulations. This potential health hazard builds on established findings from the World Health Organization: More than 3.3 million premature deaths occurring worldwide per year due to polluted air, and in China alone, 1.6 million premature deaths are estimated annually due to cardiovascular and respiratory injury from air pollution.

This raises multiple questions: Are the nanoparticles absorbed through the body by other means, such as contact with eyes or skin? Can they find their way into vegetation – including food – though soil? If so, what are the implications on the gastrointestinal tract? Are they present in drinking water? If a mouse experiences long-term damage at six weeks, what does that pose for humans who breathe the air?

Allen urges that testing move to human-focused studies.

“We’ve identified a unique pollutant in the environment, and we’ve shown there’s a potential health concern for humans, so that gives us a biomarker that we can monitor more closely," he said. "We should begin looking at these particulates more closely as we become more aware of the hazards these nanoparticles pose. These are questions that need to be asked.”

That path, while obvious, may not be so simple, ethically or politically. Scientists can’t expose human test subjects to coal smog or ash and the toxic nanoparticles. Therefore, a likely scenario: scientists could study these particles in human lung tissue from lung biopsies and clinical specimens. However, many clinicians have been reluctant to take part in this effort in many of the countries at the most risk. Allen said one reason may be the sensitivity that these countries hold toward air-quality issues.

Additional research team members include faculty and graduate students from Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS); the translational biology, medicine, and health graduate program; the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering; and the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Funding for the study came from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, ICTAS, the Virginia Tech National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and several U.S. agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Institutes of Health.

— Written by Steven Mackay

####

For more information, please click here

Contacts:
Alison Elward | | 540-231-7969
Steven Mackay | | 540-231-5035

Copyright © Virginia Tech

If you have a comment, please Contact us.

Issuers of news releases, not 7th Wave, Inc. or Nanotechnology Now, are solely responsible for the accuracy of the content.

Bookmark:
Delicious Digg Newsvine Google Yahoo Reddit Magnoliacom Furl Facebook

Related Links

Paper:

Related News Press

News and information

How photoblueing disturbs microscopy February 26th, 2021

Changing the silkworm's diet to spin stronger silk February 26th, 2021

From microsaws to nanodrills: laser pulses act as subtle machining tools: Industrial-grade materials processing on the sub-micron scale is enabled by spatially structured ultrashort laser pulses February 26th, 2021

Nanoparticles help untangle Alzheimer's disease amyloid beta plaques: New research shows that the protein that causes Alzheimer's disease's hallmark brain plaques clings to certain bowl-shaped nanoparticles, allowing researchers to better understand the disease and potentially pr February 26th, 2021

Videos/Movies

Synthetic biology reinvents development:The research team have used synthetic biology to develop a new type of genetic design that can reproduce some of the key processes that enable creating structures in natural systems, from termite nests to the development of embryos February 8th, 2021

Quantum wave in helium dimer filmed for the first time: Collaboration between Goethe University and the University of Oklahoma December 30th, 2020

Pitt researchers create nanoscale slalom course for electrons: Professors from the Department of Physics and Astronomy have created a serpentine path for electrons November 27th, 2020

Octopus-inspired sucker transfers thin, delicate tissue grafts and biosensors October 16th, 2020

Govt.-Legislation/Regulation/Funding/Policy

Bioinformatics tool accurately tracks synthetic: DNA Computer scientists show benefits of bioinformatics with PlasmidHawk February 26th, 2021

Researchers improve efficiency of next-generation solar cell material: Reducing internal losses could pave the way to low-cost perovskite-based photovoltaics that match silicon cells’ output February 26th, 2021

Dynamics of nanoparticles using a new isolated lymphatic vessel lumen perfusion system February 19th, 2021

Pore-like proteins designed from scratch: By creating barrel-shaped proteins that embed into lipid membranes, biochemist have expanded the bioengineering toolkit February 19th, 2021

Possible Futures

Changing the silkworm's diet to spin stronger silk February 26th, 2021

From microsaws to nanodrills: laser pulses act as subtle machining tools: Industrial-grade materials processing on the sub-micron scale is enabled by spatially structured ultrashort laser pulses February 26th, 2021

Nanoparticles help untangle Alzheimer's disease amyloid beta plaques: New research shows that the protein that causes Alzheimer's disease's hallmark brain plaques clings to certain bowl-shaped nanoparticles, allowing researchers to better understand the disease and potentially pr February 26th, 2021

Researchers improve efficiency of next-generation solar cell material: Reducing internal losses could pave the way to low-cost perovskite-based photovoltaics that match silicon cells’ output February 26th, 2021

Discoveries

Bioinformatics tool accurately tracks synthetic: DNA Computer scientists show benefits of bioinformatics with PlasmidHawk February 26th, 2021

How photoblueing disturbs microscopy February 26th, 2021

Changing the silkworm's diet to spin stronger silk February 26th, 2021

Researchers improve efficiency of next-generation solar cell material: Reducing internal losses could pave the way to low-cost perovskite-based photovoltaics that match silicon cells’ output February 26th, 2021

Announcements

Changing the silkworm's diet to spin stronger silk February 26th, 2021

From microsaws to nanodrills: laser pulses act as subtle machining tools: Industrial-grade materials processing on the sub-micron scale is enabled by spatially structured ultrashort laser pulses February 26th, 2021

Nanoparticles help untangle Alzheimer's disease amyloid beta plaques: New research shows that the protein that causes Alzheimer's disease's hallmark brain plaques clings to certain bowl-shaped nanoparticles, allowing researchers to better understand the disease and potentially pr February 26th, 2021

Researchers improve efficiency of next-generation solar cell material: Reducing internal losses could pave the way to low-cost perovskite-based photovoltaics that match silicon cells’ output February 26th, 2021

Interviews/Book Reviews/Essays/Reports/Podcasts/Journals/White papers/Posters

Changing the silkworm's diet to spin stronger silk February 26th, 2021

From microsaws to nanodrills: laser pulses act as subtle machining tools: Industrial-grade materials processing on the sub-micron scale is enabled by spatially structured ultrashort laser pulses February 26th, 2021

Nanoparticles help untangle Alzheimer's disease amyloid beta plaques: New research shows that the protein that causes Alzheimer's disease's hallmark brain plaques clings to certain bowl-shaped nanoparticles, allowing researchers to better understand the disease and potentially pr February 26th, 2021

Researchers improve efficiency of next-generation solar cell material: Reducing internal losses could pave the way to low-cost perovskite-based photovoltaics that match silicon cells’ output February 26th, 2021

Environment

Producing more sustainable hydrogen with composite polymer dots UPPSALA UNIVERSITY February 12th, 2021

Arctic warming and diminishing sea ice are influencing the atmosphere: Researchers of the University of Helsinki have resolved for the first time, how the environment affects the formation of nanoparticles in the Arctic. The results give additional insight into the future of melt January 29th, 2021

Boosting the efficiency of carbon capture and conversion systems: New design could speed reaction rates in electrochemical systems for pulling carbon out of power plant emissions January 25th, 2021

Phytoplankton disturbed by nanoparticles: Due to its antibacterial properties, nanosilver is used in a wide range of products from textiles to cosmetics; but nanosilver if present at high concentrations also disrupts the metabolism of algae that are essential for the aquatic food November 27th, 2020

Safety-Nanoparticles/Risk management

No nanoparticle risks to humans found in field tests of spray sunscreens December 2nd, 2020

Phytoplankton disturbed by nanoparticles: Due to its antibacterial properties, nanosilver is used in a wide range of products from textiles to cosmetics; but nanosilver if present at high concentrations also disrupts the metabolism of algae that are essential for the aquatic food November 27th, 2020

NIOSH requests data to help develop exposure limits for nanomaterials February 1st, 2020

Nanoparticles may have bigger impact on the environment than previously thought: Non-antibacterial nanoparticles can cause resistance in bacteria October 17th, 2019

Grants/Sponsored Research/Awards/Scholarships/Gifts/Contests/Honors/Records

Bioinformatics tool accurately tracks synthetic: DNA Computer scientists show benefits of bioinformatics with PlasmidHawk February 26th, 2021

Researchers improve efficiency of next-generation solar cell material: Reducing internal losses could pave the way to low-cost perovskite-based photovoltaics that match silicon cells’ output February 26th, 2021

Pore-like proteins designed from scratch: By creating barrel-shaped proteins that embed into lipid membranes, biochemist have expanded the bioengineering toolkit February 19th, 2021

A little soap simplifies making 2D nanoflakes: Rice lab’s experiments refine processing of hexagonal boron nitride January 27th, 2021

NanoNews-Digest
The latest news from around the world, FREE




  Premium Products
NanoNews-Custom
Only the news you want to read!
 Learn More
NanoStrategies
Full-service, expert consulting
 Learn More











ASP
Nanotechnology Now Featured Books




NNN

The Hunger Project