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Should modern living carry a health warning?

A new £4.4m partnership programme to explore the impacts of modern living on our health has just started to fund its first research projects.

The Environment and Human Health Programme comprises 37 projects that cover a broad field of environmental concerns linked to human health, including inhalation of nanoparticles, long-term exposure to pollution in urban environments, harmful algal toxins, climate change and emerging diseases – perhaps resulting from changing agricultural practices.

Professor Mike Moore, Science Co-ordinator for the programme, said “We know that human activity has an impact on our environment but what is not known, in many cases, is what impact environmental degradation is having on our health. The natural environment contributes to our health in many ways, for example through the quality of air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink.”

The programme identifies and prioritises research areas where the natural environment and human health interact, and is building a community of scientists in the UK committed to researching this relationship. Their research should improve our ability to identify and predict emerging health concerns, and will also improve the evidence available to support risk assessments and regulation-setting by the government and other policy makers.

One of the newest emerging concerns is the possible hazard to human health from engineered nanoparticles in our environment. Nanotechnology involves manipulating material and creating devices on a nanometre scale (a nanometre is one thousand-millionth of a metre). The environmental behaviour of engineered nanoparticles is currently unknown and their potential to harm human health is a major concern. Their miniscule size means they can easily be inhaled, ingested or absorbed without knowledge. The particles are currently used in over 200 commercial products including sunblocks, creams, cosmetics and fabric coatings, and are inevitably entering the environment either through manufacturing discharge, accidental spillage or general use.

In one of the projects, researchers will be investigating the possible effects of nanoparticles in the body by introducing two widely used types of engineered nanoparticle to synthetic lung lining liquid and blood plasma (a liquid component of blood). They will test how the synthetic liquids affect the physical properties of the nanoparticles, and the most and least reactive particles will then be tested with primary human lung cells to find out whether the more reactive particles are of danger to our health.

Lead investigator, Dr Eva Valsami-Jones from the Natural History Museum, said, “The ecological cost of many emerging technologies is not yet known. Nanotechnology is already widely used and standard toxicity tests are not necessarily effective as nanoparticles do not behave like their larger counterparts. During these first stage tests we will be looking for any physical changes to the nanoparticles when introduced to liquids such as blood plasma. We will look for changes to their size and structure, and test their ability to dissolve or accumulate. Dissolved particles could be a cause for concern as they may release potentially toxic components.”

The 37 projects all started this year and will be completed in 2008 and 2009. Environment and Human Health is led by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and is a partnership programme supported by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Environment Agency (EA); the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); the Ministry of Defence (MOD); the Medical Research Council (MRC); the Welcome Trust; the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC); the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Health Protection Agency (HPA)

Marion O'Sullivan | alfa
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