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Ecotoxicology Centre inaugurated

At an inaugural event in Dübendorf (Zurich) today focusing on nanoparticles in the environment, the Swiss Centre for Applied Ecotoxicology was officially opened.

The institution, jointly established by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) and the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), has a federal mandate to strengthen independent research, consulting and training in the ecotoxicology field.

Initial projects are already under way. The event also underlined the centre’s networking function, promoting contacts among experts from academia and industry.

Speaking at the event, National Councillor Maya Graf commented: “Increasingly, and at an ever accelerating pace, chemicals are being used whose effects in the environment are largely or completely unknown. Here, the Ecotoxicology Centre is filling a gap.” She added that not only the federal and cantonal authorities and the public but also the chemical industry requires an independent institution to show how environmental risks posed by chemicals can be identified, assessed and reduced to a minimum. In 2002, Graf had introduced a motion on toxicology research in Switzerland, which was one of the factors leading to the decision by the Federal Council and Parliament in 2007 to request the ETH Domain to establish a centre of this kind.

Richard Gamma, Deputy Director General of the SGCI (Swiss chemical and pharmaceutical industry association), also welcomed the establishment of the new centre: “For the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, it is extremely important to have high-quality education and training, based on sound research activities but nonetheless practice-oriented.” In his view, an independent centre could offer expertise for industry and the authorities and build up a higher level of credibility in the eyes of the public than would be possible for industry acting alone.

Research, consulting, networking

Almut Gerhardt, the head of the centre, said: “We want to detect problems arising from chemicals in the environment at an early stage and help to resolve them.” Gerhardt, a biologist, is an expert on environmental tests. Her work has included the development of methods for integrated monitoring of water quality in rivers and streams. Where gaps exist, tests and assessment methods are to be developed at the Ecotoxicology Centre. Existing approaches are to be refined, e.g. for measuring endocrine substances in waterbodies or for assessing contaminated soils. Just as important as the centre’s own research efforts, in Gerhardt’s view, is the “hub” function which it is to serve: a network bringing together practitioners and researchers, as well as manufacturers and users, should promote dialogue on the latest findings in ecotoxicology, both nationally and internationally. This will be supported by an expert database and participation in scientific committees. Gerhardt attaches particular importance to the education and training of professionals. A series of seminars has already been initiated.

Initial projects launched

A number of projects are already under way at the Ecotoxicology Centre. For example, a test for endocrine substances in watercourses is currently being optimized. This project, carried out in cooperation with the Federal Office for the Environment, is studying how effectively such substances can be removed, or their toxic potential reduced, by an additional purification step at wastewater treatment plants. In collaboration with cantonal laboratories, authorities and agencies, the Ecotoxicology Centre is investigating whether substances released by epoxy resins produce toxic effects. Epoxy resins are used as internal coatings for sealing pipes. In the area of terrestrial ecotoxicology, the centre is to carry out important development work. In many cases, existing OECD toxicity tests involving earthworms or springtails are too time-consuming or costly to be used in practice.

Spotlight on nanoparticles

The presentations comprising the scientific part of the opening event focused on nanoparticles. These microscopic particles (1 nanometre = a millionth of a millimetre) are being increasingly used in a wide variety of products, ranging from paints and stain-resistant finishes to cosmetics. Over the past two years, the number of products boasting properties attributable to silver nanoparticles alone has risen tenfold. Silver nanoparticles are being used to enhance not only socks and underwear but also detergents and food packaging. Clearly, these nanomaterials subsequently enter the environment, as confirmed by recent studies carried out by the Urban Water Management and Environmental Toxicology departments at Eawag. For example, silver nanoparticles that are added to facade paints to provide antialgal and antifungal protection are washed out by rainwater. Antimicrobial effects that are desirable in the original products may prove to be problematic in the environment: according to an Eawag study (pdf, 3MB) just published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, silver nanoparticles are even more toxic to algae than dissolved ionic silver, with the effects being observed at very low concentrations. This may cause problems not only in natural waters but also at wastewater treatment plants, where nanosilver could inhibit biodegradation processes and thus reduce the effectiveness of treatment. For this reason, says Almut Gerhardt, “We intend to closely follow research on the toxicity of nanoparticles and to carry out specific additional studies ourselves.”

Two sites

The headquarters of the Ecotoxicology Centre is at Eawag in Dübendorf. A second site, focusing on terrestrial ecotoxicology, has been established at the EPF in Lausanne. For special research tasks and laboratory analysis, in particular, the centre collaborates closely with the two parent organizations. The management team consists of the centre head Almut Gerhardt and one delegate each from the Eawag Directorate and the EPFL Presidency. The staff comprises 5 scientific and 2 technical employees in the centre’s own laboratories, together with part-time administrators. As well as receiving federal funding of CHF 2 million per year, the centre can undertake contract research, although it is not to compete with the private sector. Alongside the Ecotoxicology Centre, Parliament has also approved the establishment of a Swiss centre for applied human toxicology; however, the location of this institution has yet to be determined.

Andri Bryner | alfa
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