July 2006, Vol. 18, No.7


U.S EPA Funds Nanomaterial Research

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on March 16 announced that it has allocated 14 grants totaling $5 million to universities to study the potential health and environmental effects of manufactured nanomaterials. The grants were awarded through EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) research grants program in partnership with the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

“Nanotechnology has the potential to transform environmental cleanup, treat serious illnesses, and improve computer technology,” the press release states. “EPA wants to see Americans benefit from this exciting new technology while ensuring that human health and the environment are protected.”

Nanomaterials are molecules that range in size from 1 to 100 nanometers — a nanometer is 80,000 times smaller than a human hair — and have been assembled to perform some function. Because of their small size and unique properties, more research is needed to learn if nanoparticles in manufactured products can enter the human body, and if so, how long they remain. Similarly, researchers will study the fate and transport of nanoparticles in the environment, the press release states.

“This emerging field has the potential to transform environmental protection,” said George Gray, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “Researchers are now testing iron nanoparticles that could clean up pollutants in large areas of groundwater cheaper and more effectively than any existing techniques. At the same time, we must understand whether nanomaterials could negatively impact health or the environment. This research will help determine the viability of nanotechnology as a tool for protecting our environment.”

To date, EPA has awarded more than $22 million in 65 grants for projects related to the environmental applications and implications of manufactured nanomaterials. In addition, the agency has awarded about $2.5 million for nanotechnology research to small businesses through its Small Business Innovation Research program.

For more information on the nanotechnology STAR grants, including a recipient list and abstracts of the research the grants will fund, see www.epa.gov/ncer/nano2005.  

VOCs Detected in Groundwater, Drinking Water Supply Wells

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been detected in aquifers across the United States and are not limited to a few specific aquifers or regions, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report.
Released in April, the report describes the occurrence of VOCs in groundwater and drinking water supply wells nationwide. VOCs are produced in large volumes and associated with such products as plastics, adhesives, paints, gasoline, fumigants, refrigerants, and dry-cleaning fluids.

According to a USGS press release, while VOCs were found nationwide, they were not detected in most of the 3500 wells sampled between 1985 and 2002 — about 80% had no detections above a threshold of 0.2 ppb. VOCs were detected in some domestic and public supply wells but seldom at concentrations greater than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulatory or USGS health-based guidelines.
Robert Hirsch, associate director for Water at USGS, said VOCs are of particular concern due to both their persistence in the environment and their ability to migrate into groundwater. The compounds can cause cancer and have other negative health effects. 

The study characterized large-scale resource occurrence of VOCs and was not designed to evaluate localized VOC contamination of groundwater, such as at landfills and leaking underground storage tanks. The report also presents a USGS analysis focused only on drinking water supply wells, including more than 2400 domestic and nearly 1100 public wells.

Although the USGS study did not analyze drinking water after treatment, the results from drinking water supply wells were compared to federal drinking water standards and other human-health-based benchmarks as an initial screening-level assessment.

According to the news release, the USGS findings suggest strong relationships between VOCs in groundwater and the percentage of urban land use within a 0.5-km radius of sampled wells.
For a copy of the report, which includes an examination of which VOC compounds occur most frequently in groundwater, see water.usgs.gov/nawqa/vocs/national_assessment or call (888) 275-8747.