, Volume 17, Issue 5, pp 315–325 | Cite as

The ecotoxicology of nanoparticles and nanomaterials: current status, knowledge gaps, challenges, and future needs

  • Richard D. HandyEmail author
  • Richard Owen
  • Eugenia Valsami-Jones


This paper introduces a special issue on the ecotoxicology and environmental chemistry of nanoparticles (NPs), and nanomaterials (NMs), in the journal Ecotoxicology. There are many types of NMs and the scientific community is making observations on NP ecotoxicity to inform the wider debate about the risks and benefits of these materials. Natural NPs have existed in the environment since the beginning of Earth’s history, and natural sources can be found in volcanic dust, most natural waters, soils and sediments. Natural NPs are generated by a wide variety of geological and biological processes, and while there is evidence that some natural NPs can be toxic, organisms have also evolved in an environment containing natural NPs. There are concerns that natural nano-scale process could be influenced by the presence of pollution. Manufactured NPs show some complex colloid and aggregation chemistry, which is likely to be affected by particle shape, size, surface area and surface charge, as well as the adsorption properties of the material. Abiotic factors such as pH, ionic strength, water hardness and the presence of organic matter will alter aggregation chemistry; and are expected to influence toxicity. The physico-chemistry is essential to understanding of the fate and behaviour of NPs in the environment, as well as uptake and distribution within organisms, and the interactions of NPs with other pollutants. Data on biological effects show that NPs can be toxic to bacteria, algae, invertebrates and fish species, as well as mammals. However, much of the ecotoxicological data is limited to species used in regulatory testing and freshwater organism. Data on bacteria, terrestrial species, marine species and higher plants is particularly lacking. Detailed investigations of absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion (ADME) remain to be performed on species from the major phyla, although there are some data on fish. The environmental risk assessment of NMs could be performed using the existing tiered approach and regulatory framework, but with modifications to methodology including chemical characterisation of the materials being used. There are many challenges ahead, and controversies (e.g., reference substances for ecotoxicology), but knowledge transfer from mammalian toxicology, colloid chemistry, as well as material and geological sciences, will enable ecotoxicology studies to move forward in this new multi-disciplinary field.


Nanomaterials Ecotoxicity Natural nanoparticles Risk assessment 


  1. Aitken RJ, Tran CL, Donaldson K, Stone V, Cumpson P, Johnstone J, Chaudhry Q, Cash S (2007) Reference materials for engineered nanoparticle toxicology and metrology. Preliminary Note May 2007. Report by the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM) for the Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Report No. ACHS/07/09A. Available at:
  2. Aitken RJ, Chaudhry MQ, Boxall ABA, Hull M (2006) Manufacture and use of nanomaterials: current status in the UK and global trends. Occup Med 56:300–306CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barka S (2007) Insoluble detoxification of trace metals in a marine copepod Tigriopus brevicornis (Muller) exposed to copper, zinc, nickel, cadmium, silver and mercury. Ecotoxicology 16:491–502CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baun A, Sørensen SN, Rasmussen RF, Hartmann NB, Koch CB (2008) Toxicity and bioaccumulation of xenobiotic organic compounds in the presence of aqueous suspensions of aggregates of nano-C60. Aquat Toxicol 86:379–397Google Scholar
  5. Bermudez E, Mangum JB, Wong BA, Asgharian B, Hext PM, Warheit DB, Everitt JI (2004) Pulmonary responses of mice, rats, and hamsters to subchronic inhalation of ultrafine titanium dioxide particles. Toxicol Sci 77:347–357CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Borm PJA, Robbins D, Haubold S, Kuhlbusch T, Fissan H, Donaldson K, Schins R, StoneV, Kreyling W, Lademann J, Krutmann J, Warheit D, Oberdörster E (2006) The potential risks of nanomaterials: a review carried out for ECETOC. Particle Fibre Toxicol 3:11. Open access at:
  7. Brody AL (2006) Nano and food packaging technologies converge. Food Tech 60:92–94Google Scholar
  8. Boxall ABA, Chaudhry Q, Sinclair C, Jones A, Aitken R, Jefferson B, Watts C (2007) Current and future predicted environmental exposure to engineered nanoparticles. Report by the Central Science Laboratory (CSL) York for the Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), UK. Available at:
  9. Buffle J, Leeuwen HP (eds) (1992) Environmental particles vol. 1. IUPAC environmental analytical and physical chemistry series. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, p 554Google Scholar
  10. Crane M, Handy RD (2007) An assessment of regulatory testing strategies and methods for characterizing the ecotoxicological hazards of nanomaterials, Report for Defra, London, UK. Available at:
  11. Derjaguin BV, Landau LD (1941) Theory of the stability of strongly charged lyophobic sols and of the adhesion of strongly charged particles in solutions of electrolytes. Acta Phys Chim 14:733–762Google Scholar
  12. Duran N, Marcato PD, De Souza GIH, Alves OL, Esposito E (2007) Antibacterial effect of silver nanoparticles produced by fungal process on textile fabrics and their effluent treatment. J Biomed Nanotech 3:203–208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Elimelech M, Gregory J, Jia X, Williams RI (1995) Particle deposition and aggregation: measurement, modelling and simulation. Butterworth-Heinemann, Woburn, p 441Google Scholar
  14. El Nemr A, Abd-Allah AMA (2003) Contamination of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in microlayer and subsurface waters along Alexandria coast, Egypt. Chemosphere 52:1711–1716CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fagan PJ, Calabrese JC, Malone B (1991) The chemical nature of Buckminster fullerene (C60) and the characterization of a platinum derivative. Science 252:1160–1161Google Scholar
  16. Federici G, Shaw BJ, Handy RD (2007) Toxicity of titanium dioxide nanoparticles to rainbow trout, (Oncorhynchus mykiss): gill injury, oxidative stress, and other physiological effects. Aquat Toxicol 84:415–430CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Freitas RA (2005) What is nanomedicine? Nanomedicine 1:2–9Google Scholar
  18. Fu GF, Vary PS, Lin CT (2005) Anatase TiO2 nanocomposites for antimicrobial coatings. J Phys Chem 109:8889–8898Google Scholar
  19. Giasuddin ABM, Kanel SR, Choi H (2007) Adsorption of humic acid onto nanoscale zerovalent iron and its effect on arsenic removal. Environ Sci Technol 41:2022–2027CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Grasso D, Subramaniam K, Butkus M, Strevett K, Bergendahl J (2002) A review of non-DLVO interactions in environmental colloidal systems. Rev Environ Sci Biotechnol 1:17–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Handy RD, Eddy FB (1991) Effects of inorganic cations on Na+ adsorption to the gill and body surface of rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss, in dilute solutions. Can J Fish Aquat Sci 48:1829–1837Google Scholar
  22. Handy RD, Eddy FB (2004) Transport of solutes across biological membranes in eukaryotes: an environmental perspective. In: van Leeuwen HP, Köster W (eds) Physicochemical kinetics and transport at chemical–biological interphases, IUPAC series. John Wiley, Chichester, pp 337–356CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Handy RD, Kammer Fvd, Lead JR, Hassellöv M, Owen R, Crane M (2008) The ecotoxicology and chemistry of manufactured nanoparticles. Ecotoxicology 17:287–314Google Scholar
  24. Handy RD, Shaw BJ (2007) Toxic effects of nanoparticles and nanomaterials: implications for public health, risk assessment and the public perception of nanotechnology. Health Risk Soc 9:125–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hund-Rinke K, Simon M (2006) Ecotoxic effect of photocatalytic active nanoparticles TiO2 on algae and daphnids. Environ Sci Pollut Res 13:225–232CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hyung H, Fortner JD, Hughes JB, Kim J-H (2007) Natural organic matter stabilizes carbon nanotubes in the aqueous phase. Environ Sci Technol 41:179–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Karnik BS, Davies SH, Baumann MJ, Masten SJ (2005) Fabrication of catalytic membranes for the treatment of drinking water using combined ozonation and ultrafiltration. Environ Sci Technol 39:7656–7661CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kellogg CA, Griffin DW (2006) Aerobiology and the global transport of desert dust. Trends Ecol Evol 21:638–644CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kim SW, Bae DS, Shin H, Hong KS (2004) Optical absorption behaviour of platinum core–silica shell nanoparticle layer and its influence on the reflection spectra of a multi-layer coating system in the visible spectrume range. J Phys Condens Matter 16:3199–3206CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lam CW, James JT, McCluskey R, Hunter RL (2004) Pulmonary toxicity of single-wall carbon nanotubes in mice 7 and 90 days after intratracheal instillation. Toxicol Sci 77:126–134CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lead JR, Wilkinson KJ (2006) Aquatic colloids and nanoparticles: current knowledge and future trends. Environ Chem 3:159–171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lee SH, Richards RJ (2004) Montserrat volcanic ash induces lymph node granuloma and delayed lung inflammation. Toxicology 195:155–165CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lovern SB, Klaper RD (2006) Daphnia magna mortality when exposed to titanium nanoparticles and fullerene (C60) nanoparticles. Environ Toxicol Chem 25:1132–1137CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lovern SB, Strickler JR, Klaper R (2007) Behavioral and physiological changes in Daphnia magna when exposed to nanoparticle suspensions (titanium dioxide, nano-C-60, and C(60)HxC(70)Hx). Environ Sci Technol 41:4465–4470CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Lutgens FK, Tarbuck EJ, Tasa D (2005) Essentials of geology, 9th edn. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, p 504Google Scholar
  36. Lyon DY, Fortner JD, Sayes CM, Colvin VL, Hughes JB (2005) Bacterial cell association and antimicrobial activity of a C-60 water suspension. Environ Toxicol Chem 24:2757–2762CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Maynard AD, Aitken RJ (2007) Assessing exposure to airborne nanomaterials: current abilities and future requirements. Nanotoxicology 1:26–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Moore MN (2006) Do nanoparticles present ecotoxicological risks for the health of the aquatic environment? Environ International 32:967–976CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Murr LE, Esquivel EV, Bang JJ, de la Rosa G, Gardea-Torresdey JL (2004) Chemistry and nanoparticulate compositions of a 10,000 year-old ice core melt water. Water Res 38:4282–4296CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Noren K, Weistrand C, Karpe F (1999) Distribution of PCB congeners, DDE, hexachlorobenzene, and methylsulfonyl metabolites of PCB and DDE among various fractions of human blood plasma. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 37:408–414CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Oberdörster E (2004) Manufactured nanomaterials (fullerenes, C60) induce oxidative stress in the brain of juvenile Largemouth Bass. Environ Health Perspect 112:1058–1062Google Scholar
  42. Oberdörster E, Zhu SQ, Blickley TM, Clellan-Green P, Haasch ML (2006) Ecotoxicology of carbon-based engineered nanoparticles: effects of fullerene (C-60) on aquatic organisms. Carbon 44:1112–1120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Oberdörster G, Oberdörster E, Oberdörster J (2007) Concepts of nanoparticle dose metric and response metric. Environ Health Perspect 115:A290–A291CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Oberdörster G, Ferin J, Gelein R, Soderholm SC, Finkelstein J (1992) Role of the alveolar macrophage in lung injury—Studies with ultrafine particles. Environ Health Perspect 97:193–199CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Obernosterer I, Catala P, Reinthaler T, Herndl GJ, Lebaron P (2005) Enhanced heterotrophic activity in the surface microlayer of the Mediterranean Sea. Aquat Microbial Ecol 39:293–302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Owen R, Depledge MH (2005) Nanotechnology and the environment: risks and rewards. Marine Pollut Bull 50:609–612CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Owen R, Handy RD (2007) Formulating the problems for environmental risk assessment of nanomaterials. Environ Sci Techol 41:5582–5588CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Rietmeijer FJM, Mackinnon IDR (1997) Bismuth oxide nanoparticles in the stratosphere. J Geophys Res-Planet 102:6621–6627CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Reid BJ, Jones KC, Semple KT (2000) Bioavailability of persistent organic pollutants in soils and sediments—a perspective on mechanisms, consequences and assessment. Environ Pollut 108:103–112CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Roco MC (2003) Nanotechnology: convergence with modern biology and medicine. Curr Opin Biotechnol 14:337–346CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Royal Society (2004) Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties. Report by the Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering. Available at:
  52. SCENIHR (2005) Opinion on the appropriateness of existing methodologies to assess the potential risks associated with engineered and adventitious products of nanotechnologies. Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, European Commission SCENIHR/002/05Google Scholar
  53. Scarano G, Morelli E (2003) Properties of phytochelatin-coated CdS nanocrystallites formed in a marine phytoplanktonic alga (Phaeodactylum tricornutum, Bohlin) in response to Cd. Plant Sci 165:803–810CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Simpkiss K (1990) Surface effects in ecotoxicology. Funct Ecol 4:303–308CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Smith CJ, Shaw BJ, Handy RD (2007) Toxicity of single walled carbon nanotubes on rainbow trout, (Oncorhynchus mykiss): respiratory toxicity, organ pathologies, and other physiological effects. Aquat Toxicol 82:94–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Tong Z, Bischoff M, Nies L, Applegate B, Turco RF (2007) Impact of fullerene on a soil microbial community. Environ Sci Technol 41:2985–2991CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. US EPA (2005) Nanotechnology white, external review draft 2nd December 2005. Science Policy Council, US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington DCGoogle Scholar
  58. Verwey EJW, Overbeek JThG (1948) Theory of the stability of lyophobic colloids: the interaction of sol particles having an electric double layer, Elsevier, New York, p 205Google Scholar
  59. Verma HC, Upadhyay C, Tripathi A, Tripathi RP, Bhandari N (2002) Thermal decomposition pattern and particle size estimation of iron minerals associated with the cretaceous-tertiary boundary at Gubbio. Meteorit Planet Sci 37:901–909Google Scholar
  60. Wigginton NS, Haus KL, Hochella MF (2007) Aquatic environmental nanoparticles. J Environ Monitor 9:1306–1316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wilkinson KJ, Joz-Roland A, Buffle J (1997) Different roles of pedogenic fulvic acids and aquagenic hiopolymers on colloid aggregation and stability in freshwaters. Limnol Oceanogr 42:1714–1724Google Scholar
  62. Wu YL, Tok AIY, Boey FYC, Zeng XT, Zhang XH (2007) Surface modification of ZnO nanocrystals. Appl Surf Sci 253:5473–5479CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Wurl O, Obbard JP (2004) A review of pollutants in the sea-surface microlayer (SML): a unique habitat for marine organisms. Mar Pollut Bull 48:1016–1030CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Zhu S, Oberdörster E, Haasch ML (2006) Toxicity of an engineered nanoparticle (fullerene, C60) in two aquatic species, Daphnia and fathead minnow. Mar Environ Res 62:S5–S9CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard D. Handy
    • 1
    Email author
  • Richard Owen
    • 2
  • Eugenia Valsami-Jones
    • 3
  1. 1.Ecotoxicology and Stress Biology Research Group, School of Biological SciencesUniversity of PlymouthPlymouthUK
  2. 2.Environment AgencyBristolUK
  3. 3.Department of MineralogyNatural History MuseumLondonUK

Personalised recommendations