Nanoplastics in the Aquatic Environment. Critical Review

Abstract A growing body of literature reports on the abundance and effects of plastic debris, with an increasing focus on microplastic particles smaller than 5 mm. It has often been suggested that plastic particles in the <100 nm size range as defined earlier for nanomaterials (here referred to as 'nanoplastics'), may be emitted to or formed in the aquatic environment. Nanoplastics is probably the least known area of marine litter but potentially also the most hazardous. This paper provides the first review on sources, effects and hazards of nanoplastics. Detection methods are in an early stage of development and to date no nanoplastics have actually been detected in natural aquatic systems. Various sources of nanoplastics have been suggested such as release from products or nanofragmentation of larger particles. Nanoplastic fate studies for rivers show an important role for sedimentation of heteroaggregates, similar to that for non-polymer nanomaterials. Some prognostic effect studies have been performed but effect thresholds seem higher than nanoplastic concentrations expected in the environment. The high surface area of nanoplastics may imply that toxic chemicals are retained by nanoplastics, possibly increasing overall hazard. Release of non-polymer nanomaterial additives from small product fragments may add to the hazard of nanoplastics. Because of the presence of such co-contaminants, effect studies with nanoplastics pose some specific practical challenges. We conclude that hazards of nanoplastics are plausible yet unclear, which calls for a thorough evaluation of nanoplastic sources, fate and effects.


Today, pollution with plastic debris and plastic fragments has been recognized as a major water quality problem in fresh and marine water systems. Various recent reviews address the sources, abundance and negative effects of plastic litter (e.g. Derraik 2002; Andrady 2011; Hammer et al. 2012; Koelmans et al. 2014a), including several other chapters in this volume (Browne 2015; Galgani et al. 2015; Thompson 2015). Science in this field is evolving rapidly, with initial studies mainly focusing on detection and abundance of >5 mm macroplastic in marine ecosystems and biota, followed by an increasing focus on <5 mm microplastics ranging down to the µm-scale. Implications of nanometre-sized plastic particles ('nanoplastics'), constitute a very recent area of the environmental sciences. Nanoplastics are of specific interest because of their nano-specific properties, which fundamentally differ from those of the same polymer type in bulk form (Klaine et al. 2012). A clear definition of what should be named a 'nanoplastic' has not yet been provided. For the sake of this review we suggest to follow the definition used for non-polymer nanomaterials, implying that a plastic particle is said to be nano-sized if it is <100 nm in at least one of its dimensions (Klaine et al. 2012). This links the name of the size class to the most convenient scale to actually express this size (i.e. nanometre), it assures a focus on the nano-specific properties and thus their associated hazards, it avoids confusion with the broad scientific field of nano-EHS, and it ensures that a discussion of regulatory implications of nanoplastics may benefit from the past and present developments in the regulation of other manufactured nanomaterials. It must be noted that the classification of plastic particles is not a trivial issue. Earlier, microplastic has been defined as all particles <5 mm, thus automatically including nanometre-sized plastic particles (Arthur et al. 2009). Another recent definition uses <20 µm as a criterion to classify nanoplastics (Wagner et al. 2014), similar to the cut off used by plankton ecologists for nanoplankton. This definition thus includes micrometresized particles. Furthermore, it must be stressed that in the fields of nanotechnology and material science the term 'nanoplastics' is already used for those plastics that have nanoscale additives to give the material specific properties (e.g. Bussière et al. 2013). In this chapter on environmental implications, we classify nanoplastic (NP) as particles <100 nm for the reasons stated.

NPs is probably the least known area of marine litter but potentially also the most hazardous. Various sources of NPs have been suggested such as release from products or formation from larger particles ('nanofragmentation') (Andrady 2011; Shim et al. 2014; Cózar et al. 2014). Detection methods are in an early stage of development but to date no NPs have been detected in natural aquatic systems. Some first prognostic bioaccumulation and effect studies have been performed (Brown et al. 2001; Ward and Kach 2009; Bhattacharya et al. 2010; Wegner et al. 2012; Lee et al. 2013; Casado et al. 2013; Besseling et al. 2014b) but there is no systematic effect assessment for relevant aquatic species let alone for the community or ecosystem level. Apart from physiological consequences, NPs might also have chemical effects. The high surface area of NPs may cause exceptionally strong sorption affinities for toxic compounds (Velzeboer et al. 2014a), potentially leading to cumulative particle and chemical toxicity effects once NPs have passed cell membranes. Furthermore, if nanofragmentation is a relevant process, release of non-polymer nanoscale additives from the product fragments may further add to the overall hazard (Nowack et al. 2012).

The aim of this chapter is to present and critically discuss the literature on detection, sources, fate and effects of NPs. Because the literature on NPs is still limited, our synthesis builds on knowledge about bulk polymers i.e. microand macroplastics as well as on knowledge about non-polymer nanomaterials. Challenges in performing ecotoxicity tests with NPs are discussed and an outlook to future work and recommendations are provided. The potential effects of NP on human health are covered by Galloway (2015).

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