- Open Access
Nanoparticles in the environment: assessment using the causal diagram approach
- Suchi Smita†1,
- Shailendra K Gupta†2,
- Alena Bartonova3,
- Maria Dusinska3, 4,
- Arno C Gutleb5 and
- Qamar Rahman†1Email author
© Smita et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2012
Published: 28 June 2012
Nanoparticles (NPs) cause concern for health and safety as their impact on the environment and humans is not known. Relatively few studies have investigated the toxicological and environmental effects of exposure to naturally occurring NPs (NNPs) and man-made or engineered NPs (ENPs) that are known to have a wide variety of effects once taken up into an organism.
A review of recent knowledge (between 2000-2010) on NP sources, and their behaviour, exposure and effects on the environment and humans was performed. An integrated approach was used to comprise available scientific information within an interdisciplinary logical framework, to identify knowledge gaps and to describe environment and health linkages for NNPs and ENPs.
The causal diagram has been developed as a method to handle the complexity of issues on NP safety, from their exposure to the effects on the environment and health. It gives an overview of available scientific information starting with common sources of NPs and their interactions with various environmental processes that may pose threats to both human health and the environment. Effects of NNPs on dust cloud formation and decrease in sunlight intensity were found to be important environmental changes with direct and indirect implication in various human health problems. NNPs and ENPs exposure and their accumulation in biological matrices such as microbiota, plants and humans may result in various adverse effects. The impact of some NPs on human health by ROS generation was found to be one of the major causes to develop various diseases.
A proposed cause-effects diagram for NPs is designed considering both NNPs and ENPs. It represents a valuable information package and user-friendly tool for various stakeholders including students, researchers and policy makers, to better understand and communicate on issues related to NPs.
Within HENVINET, an FP6 funded project, causal diagrams were developed as a tool to evaluate areas of agreement and disagreement between scientists and to identify gaps of knowledge [1, 2]. The method of expert elicitation was applied by the HENVINET consortium to assess the health and policy implications of phthalates, where all details in the methodology behind the results presented here of the decaBDE and HBCD elicitations can be found . In addition, an extensive review of the methodology with an overall discussion and analysis of the outcome for all the priority areas of the HENVINET consortium has been made . Furthermore evaluations on advantages and disadvantages of the expert elicitation methodology have been made by others [4, 5]. This approach has been chosen as one potential method to handle complex issues that are typically faced by the environment and health community and decision-makers. The current manuscript describes a proposed cause-effect diagram for nanoparticles (NPs) applicable to both naturally occurring NPs (NNPs) and man-made or engineered NPs (ENPs), and provides a short justification for the inclusion of the proposed elements into the presented cause-effect diagram. However, it has to be noted that the presented cause-effect diagram has not been the topic of an expert- elicitation yet.
At the moment, it is unclear whether the benefits of nanotechnologies outweigh the risks associated with environmental release and exposure to NPs and there are concerns that NPs can also lead to a new class of environmental hazards . Until now, relatively few studies have investigated the toxicological and environmental effects of exposure to NPs and ENPs. However, there is enormous effort at national and at international levels including the OECD and the European Union to investigate the impact of NPs on the environment and health. No clear guidelines exist on how to evaluate and quantify these effects, the provision of systematic information following NPs from releases to effects was requested  and furthermore it was argued to apply an integrated approach . NPs differ in size, shape, chemical composition and in many physico-chemical properties. It is therefore crucially important to know which properties may cause adverse health effects .
Elements of the NP cause-effect diagram
Sources of nanoparticles
Sources of NPs can be classified as natural or intentional and unintentional anthropogenic activities. NNPs exist in the environment since the beginning of Earth’s history and are common and widely distributed throughout the earths´ atmosphere, oceans, surface and ground water, soil and even in living organisms. Major natural processes that release NPs in the atmosphere are forest fires, volcanic activities, weathering, formation from clay minerals, soil erosion by wind and water, or dust storms from desert. Atmospheric dust alone is estimated to contain as much as several million of tons of natural NPs within a year . Naturally occurring ambient NPs are quite heterogeneous in size and can be transported over thousands of kilometres and remain suspended in the air for several days.
As a growing and widely applied science, nanotechnology has a global socioeconomic value, with applications ranging from electronics to biomedical uses . With the advancement of industrial processes and nanotechnologies, a large number of ENPs are been manufactured and it is inevitable that during the use of the related products, ENPs are released in the air, water and soil both intentionally and unintentionally.
Because of their small size (less than 100 nm) and the very high surface to volume ratio, NPs usually display an enormously elevated reactivity potential. NPs can be assigned to a transitional range between single atoms or molecules and bulk material. The physicochemical features of NPs differ substantially from those of their respective bulk materials. Most of the ENPs are made up of carbon, silicon, metal or metal oxides and are believed to adversely affect the environment and human health directly or indirectly together with naturally occurring NPs . Certain carbon nanotubes can cause the onset of mesothelioma, a type of cancer previously thought to be only associated with asbestos exposure, once inhaled [4, 5, 21]. However, this is not caused by the fact that nanotubes have two dimensions smaller than 100 nm but because they in fact interact with cells similarly to asbestos .
Natural occurrence of NPs in environmental matrices and their effects
NNPs can serve as a model for ENPs in the environment and naturally occurring mineral NPs. Their behaviour can point out important mechanisms in which NPs can move through environments and affect various environmental systems . Once NPs are released in the environment from either natural or man-made sources, very little is known about their environmental fate. Especially NNPs in the atmosphere have been studied in atmospheric sciences . After release in the environment, NPs will accumulate in various environmental matrices such as air , water, soil and sediments including wastewater sludge [24–28].
Effects of NPs on the environment
Various environmental processes that depend on the presence of physical entities are likely to be altered by the accumulation of NPs in the environment. Some of these processes are dust cloud formation, environmental hydroxyl radical concentration, ozone depletion, or stratospheric temperature change.
Effect of NNPs on dust cloud formation and decrease in sun light intensity
NNPs are thought to play an important role in dust-clouds formation after being released into the environment as they coagulate and form dust cloud . 70% of the brown clouds over South Asia are made up of soot from the burning of biomass; largely wood and animal dung used for cooking and mainly contains particulate matters and carbon NPs from unprocessed fuel . The regional haze, known as atmospheric brown clouds, contributes to glacial melting, reduces sunlight, and helps create extreme weather conditions that impact agricultural production. The pollution clouds also reduced the monsoon season in India [31, 32]. The weather extremes may also contribute to the reduced production of key crops such as rice, wheat and soybean .
Asian brown clouds impact on Himalayan glaciers
Asian brown clouds carry large amounts of soot and black carbon which are deposited on the glaciers. This could lead to higher absorption of the sun's heat and potentially contributing to the increased melting of glaciers . The Himalayan glaciers provide the source of many of Asia’s great rivers, with millions of people depending on them for food and water and because Asian brown clouds increase atmospheric temperature these glaciers have been decreasing over the past decades.
Asian brown clouds impact on agriculture
Dimming induced by atmospheric brown clouds is considered the major cause of the changing pattern of rainfall in Asia, with decreasing rainfall in some parts while other parts experience intense floods. Asian brown clouds are interfering with centuries old monsoon patterns with disastrous consequences for food production . The large concentration of ozone in atmospheric brown clouds could decrease crop yields by as much as 20% [29, 31].
Asian brown cloud impact on human health
Effect of NNPs on environmental hydroxyl radicals concentration and ozone depletion in the atmosphere
Effect of NNPs on the decrease of environmental stratospheric temperature
Accumulation of ENPs in selected biological matrices
While the description of the ecotoxicity of NPs is not a central aim of this manuscript NP exposure related effects have been shown for a range of test organisms and NPs. TiO2 NPs were shown to adsorb on algal cell surface, resulting in the increase of cellular weight by more than 2 fold and affecting the algae’s ability to float and resulting in reduced sunlight availability for photosynthesis . The toxicity of TiO2 NPs on green algae Desmodesmus subspicatus has been shown to be size dependent. Smaller NPs (~ 25 nm) showed a clear concentration-effect relationship (EC50 of about 40 mg/L), whereas the large particles (~ 100 nm) were found to be less toxic . Silver NPs exerted considerable toxicity in a nematode (Caenorhabditis elegans), especially decreasing the reproduction potential and increased enzyme induction and protein formation  but have been shown to also affect a range of other organisms too . NPs may impair the function or reproductive cycles of earthworms, which play a key role in nutrient cycling  hence possessing a hazard to induce ecological imbalances.
Human exposure to nanoparticles
Exposure of humans to NPs mainly occur through natural routes (oral, pulmonary or skin uptake). Exposure assessment is difficult but necessary [8, 57–59]. Furthermore many intentional processes such as medical applications may directly inject ENPs into the human body. Under practical conditions the most important routes of uptake for ENPs are inhalation or oral uptake , but this has not been specifically studied. More information is available for accidentally released NPs from combustion engines especially diesel exhaust [60, 61]. In case of aerosolized silver-containing NPs that are widely used in consumer products due to their antimicrobial properties, environmental and human health risk were reviewed in detail . NPs come in the direct contact with skin as they are widely used in various cosmetics and personal care products, and hence the assessment of toxicity due to dermal route of exposure is very critical . While NPs are already present in food products such as ketchup, intake of NPs through food is another area where exposure assessment is crucial but very little information available on population exposures through ingestion . To facilitate the toxicity assessment of NPs exposure to human, the establishment of exposure registries were recommended to enable the conduct of large-scale prospective multi-center epidemiologic studies .
Human health impact of nanoparticles
Inhaled NPs are likely to evade phagocytosis, penetrate lung tissue, reaching interstitial spaces and enter blood circulation [67–69]. In the cardiovascular system platelet aggregation, and enhanced vascular thrombosis were observed . Via the blood stream NPs can finally reach sensitive target sites such as lymph nodes, spleen, heart, kidney, liver, pancreas, bone marrow and brain [19, 67, 68, 71–73]. Cell membrane penetration and particle accumulation in diverse cellular organelles (e.g. mitochondria) can finally lead to injurious responses within the crucial target organs and inflammation, immunotoxicity, cytotoxicity, genotoxicity and malignancy have been attributed to the nanoparticle-associated oxidative stress [18, 21, 74–77]. The oxidative stress resulting from the exposure to quartz and carbon black NPs can pose pronounced effects like interstitial fibrosis and airway inflammation [78–80].
Nanotechnology, as a strongly growing and widely applied science, has a high potential of global socioeconomic value. On one hand, the new features of designed NPs provide unprecedented technical capabilities thereby enabling them to perform absolutely novel tasks in technology and science. Unfortunately, just the same new qualities can concurrently also include undesired intrinsic features, which sometimes lead to harmful interactions with exposed organisms.
In coherence with the described alarming aspects it seems to be a high time to establish linkages between direct and indirect health impact of NP exposure and evaluate the consensus among researchers and policy makers regarding the knowledge base. The causal diagram approach has proven to be a suitable conceptualization, simplification and visualization technique that allows communication linking the scientific disciplines involved, as documented by a wide range of examples [1, 2, 81, 82]. In the near future it is envisaged to use this diagram as the basis for an internet-based tool for knowledge assessment. These causal diagrams provide an important platform to identify knowledge gaps and potential agreements or disagreements on the effect of NPs on various environmental processes and their impact on human health and can contribute to sustainable governance regarding the future use of NPs.
The work has been funded by the EU FP6 coordination action HENVINET, contract no 037019. The contribution of ACG was in part made possible within NanEAU (FNR/08/SR/07 - Fonds National de la Recherche Luxembourg). MD’s contribution was supported by a grant from Norway through the Norwegian Financial Mechanism in the frame of the Polish-Norwegian Research Grant (PNRF-122-AI-1/07). The authors are also grateful to the reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions and to Vanessa Peardon for her proofreading.
This article has been published as part of Environmental Health Volume 11 Supplement 1, 2012: Approaching complexities in health and environment. The full contents of the supplement are available online at http://www.ehjournal.net/supplements/11/S1.
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