10 things to know about ‘Erin Brockovich’ water contaminant

AZ Central and The Arizona Republic report based in part upon our work:

hromium-6, a cancer-causing chemical made famous by the legal efforts of Erin Brockovich, has been found in the drinking water of many major cities, including Phoenix. Wochit

Drinking water with chromium-6 that exceeds California standards for a day or five years won’t change your cancer risk that much, expert says.

Distressed by recent news of the “Erin Brockovich” contaminant in your drinking water?

Don’t panic. Health recommendations are based on decades of exposure, so drinking water exceeding those goals for one day or even for the next five years statistically doesn’t change your cancer risk that much, an Arizona State University scientist said.

A report, released by Environmental Working Group, found that more than 200 million Americans drink water that has more chromium-6 in it than California scientists recommend.

Chromium-6 gained national attention in the 1990s when then-legal clerk Erin Brockovich helped residents in Hinkley, Calif., settle a massive case against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. The electric utility had polluted the groundwater with cancer-causing chemicals, which Brockovich linked to illnesses in the town.

1. The California Office of Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal of .02 parts per billion.

That means if you drink water containing that amount of chromium-6 over 70 years, you have no more than a one-in-a-million chance of getting cancer. The office determines such goals on health alone — economic or technical feasibility not included.

2. California set its legal limit to 10 parts per billion.

That gives you a 500-in-a-million chance of getting cancer from chromium-6 ingestion. The state arrived at that number based on health, economical and technical feasibility.

3.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows for chromium levels to reach 100 parts per billion.

That lumps together chromium-6 and its benign cousin, chromium-3, but assumes that all of those particles are of the harmful variety. The limit reflects up to a 5,000-in-a-million chance of getting cancer. The federal government set this standard in 2001 based on skin reactions and is considering lowering the limit. But don’t expect a draft assessment until 2017. The EPA reported five years ago that chromium-6 is likely to cause cancer.

4. Chromium-6 leaches into water either naturally or from runoff from industries such as electroplating, leather tanning and textile.

Chromium is an abundant element in Earth’s crust, found in rocks, plants, soil, volcanic dust, humans and animals. Chromium-6 is created when chromium oxidizes. Around here, the contaminant occurs naturally.

5. The contaminant is pervasive.

Environmental Working Group found that Americans drink water exceeding the California goal in all 50 states.

6. Your utility is most likely well within that federal standard, but also within the California standard, if your water system serves at least 10,000 people.

Most utilities in Arizona reported average chromium-6 levels below 10 parts per billion. The testing doesn’t include everyone, though. The law required water utilities nationwide serving at least 10,000 people to test for chromium-6 from 2013 to 2015. A small fraction of small systems were required to test.

7. Home test kits for chromium-6 won’t tell you if you’re within California limits.

Consumer-testing products tend to detect chromium-6 in parts per million. In fact, it’s only been about 10 to 12 years since the technology was developed to measure at the levels we do today. If you’re worried about chromium in your well, you’ll likely have to submit samples to a laboratory to find out if you’re close to California’s health goal, said Paul Westerhoff, senior sustainability scientist of Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

8. Techniques to reduce your exposure can be expensive and water intensive.

Reverse osmosis is a method often recommended to reduce your exposure to chromium-6. These systems can cost hundreds of dollars and require vigilance on your part to make sure they’re well maintained and updated with filter replacements on a strict schedule. The technology also wastes about 70 percent of the water it processes, Westerhoff said.

Standard carbon filters will not tackle chromium-6, but the Environmental Working Group has recommended one type of pour-through filter that does. It is unclear, however, whether the product by Zero Technologies filters chromium-6 down to the California standard. The company certifies the product to reduce chromium levels to less than 50 parts per billion.

MORE: Read the report | Learn about your water system on interactive map

9. Make sure the product you buy is certified by the National Sanitation Foundation.

The blue “NSF” label ensures that the product’s claim has been validated.

10. ASU and other university researchers are working with private industry to develop another way to reduce chromium-6 exposure at home.

The team aims to release a technology in about a year that revamps the standard carbon-block filter to combat chromium-6. The work is partially funded by a $3.5 million National Science Foundation grant and membership fees from 15 industrial partners. The goal is to create a filter that is easier to use and less expensive than reverse osmosis, said Westerhoff, who is part of the team.

Chromium-6 in Valley drinking water

Phoenix: 7.9 parts per billion.

Glendale: 6.4 parts per billion.

Avondale: 6.1 parts per billion.

Gilbert: 5.9 parts per billion.

Mesa: 5.6 parts per billion.

Chandler: 5.2 parts per billion.

Peoria: 3.8 parts per billion.

Queen Creek: 3.5 parts per billion.

Scottsdale: 3.5 parts per billion.

Tempe: 2.3 parts per billion.

Source: Environmental Working Group

Note: These numbers reflect an average of all water samples taken from each city’s test sites, which includes lesser-used sources such as wells.

PhD student in our Group Awarded the 2016 Simon Karecki Award

Read here about doctoral candidate Xiangyu Bi’s recent award

Each year the ERC presents the award to a promising young researcher in environmentally sustainable manufacturing from its more than 12 participating universities.  This is the 15th year that Anna Karecki, Simon’s mother, has traveled from New York to Tucson to personally present the award. “This was Simon’s family,” she said to the group. “With this award I hope to encourage these brilliant young people, who are so passionate about their work, like Simon was.”

The 2016 Simon Karecki Award was given to Xiangyu Bi, a doctoral student in civil, environmental and sustainable energy at Arizona State University. The Karecki Award Board selected Bi for maintaining an excellent academic record while working on several research projects and teaching lab courses. He has been recognized by several other groups, including the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization.



The impact of anti-odor clothing on the environment

ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: March 30, 2016 (CLICK HERE)

The impact of anti-odor clothing on the environment

Potential Environmental Impacts and Antimicrobial Efficacy of Silver- and Nanosilver-Containing Textiles
Environmental Science & Technology

Anti-odor athletic clothes containing silver nanoparticles have gained a foothold among exercise buffs, but questions have arisen over how safe and effective they are. Now scientists report in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technologythat silver nanoparticles and coatings do wash off of commercially available garments in the laundry but at negligible levels. They also found that even low concentrations of silver on clothing kept microbes at bay.

Thanks to their antimicrobial properties, silver nanoparticles are found in an increasing array of products such as food packaging, bandages and textiles. At the same time, scientists have been studying the possible effects silver nanoparticles might have on the environment and human health. Studies have shown that the particles can be toxic, but their safety is dependent on a number of factors such as size and dose. Few studies, however, have examined both their effectiveness in products and their potential for harm. Paul K. Westerhoff and colleagues wanted to see how the design of antimicrobial clothes affects how well they stand up to washing and their potential to leach silver into the environment.

The researchers tested commercial athletic shirts in which the silver nanoparticles were incorporated in one of four different ways. Washing the shirts released a range of silver concentrations, depending on how the nanoparticles were attached. But overall, the resulting toxicity of the wastewater due to its silver content was negligible to zebrafish embryos — a model animal used in toxicity studies. And after washing, the shirts still retained their antimicrobial effect even if their remaining metal concentration was low. The researchers also say, however, that the remaining silver will leach out over time when the clothes are discarded in landfills. They recommend keeping the initial metal concentration in these products low to help reduce their environmental impact while still maintaining their ability to fight off microbes.

The authors acknowledge funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

There are hidden treasures in our sewage sludge

By April 08, 2016 | 2:44 PM  Read full story here

We’ve all been told not to waste our money, but it turns out that every year millions of dollars are literally gone to waste.

Millions of dollars worth of valuable metals get flushed into our sewage every year, according to a 2015 study published in Environmental Science & Technology. For a city of about a million people, there is around 13 million dollars worth of metals.

“Each person discharges about 10 dollars worth of gold a year,” said Paul Westerhoff, Professor of Environmental and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University and author of the study.

He began studying the hidden treasures in our sewage sludge by first studying if nanoparticles from toothpaste made it past water purification. He found so much more.

“We found titanium dioxide that looks like it came from your toothpaste,” he said. “But then we also started to find gold nuggets and silver nuggets.”

These metals not only come from industrial processes, jewelry manufacturing and mining, but from our own bodies as well. Teeth fillings, decorative gold on food, as well as many pharmaceuticals can contribute to the metal we flush down the toilet.

“There’s a lot more gold floating around than you’d imagine,” said Westerhoff.

If this metal were to be mined, it could reduce the costs of getting rid of solids by 25 percent, and could potentially reduce a city’s taxes.

“Someone’s not going to come in and make money selling gold, but it will decrease the cost of treating waste water,” Westerhoff said.

Cities like Japan are already extracting metals from their sewage. Other cities like Switzerland are incinerating their solids with the idea of mining it in the future when technology is more advanced, and the process is less energy intensive.

“You can find ways to concentrate the metals down and then apply some of the same techniques as mining companies,” said Westerhoff.

Science can be dirty business, but Westerhoff keeps a good humor about it.

“I understand that there’s significant value in trying to communicate what we do in science to the public,” he said. “If it means talking about gold in poop, that’s good for me.”


NNI Agencies Announce Nanotechnology Signature Initiative for Water Sustainability

Announcement coincides with the White House Water Summit and World Water Day

Click here for link to website

Click here to our Nanosystems ERC on NanoEnabled Water Treatment Systems

(March 23, 2016) As a part of the White House Water Summit held yesterday on World Water Day, the Federal agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) announced the launchof a Nanotechnology Signature Initiative (NSI), Water Sustainability through Nanotechnology: Nanoscale Solutions for a Global-Scale Challenge.

Access to clean water remains one of the world’s most pressing needs. As today’s White House Office of Science and Technology blog post explains, “the small size and exceptional properties of engineered nanomaterials are particularly promising for addressing the key technical challenges related to water quality and quantity.”


“One cannot find an issue more critical to human life and global security than clean, plentiful, and reliable water sources,” said Dr. Michael Meador, Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO). “Through the NSI mechanism, NNI member agencies will have an even greater ability to make meaningful strides toward this initiative’s thrust areas: increasing water availability, improving the efficiency of water delivery and use, and enabling next-generation water monitoring systems.”


Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives are areas that the NNI member agencies have identified as poised for significant advances through enhanced and focused coordination and collaboration. The complete list of NSIs with corresponding details can be found on Nano.gov.


For further information, see the announcements by the White House at:





Kiril Hristovski and Paul Westerhoff have won the Journal of Environmental Quality Best Paper Award for 2015. It recognizes their research paper, “The Release of Nanosilver from Consumer Products Used in the Home,” as one of the most outstanding published in the journal in the past five years.  Read full story here

Read the full paper.


Nanoparticles in foods raise safety questions – These microadditives enhance color, flavor and freshness. But what do they do in the body?

From SCIENCE NEWS – read full story


Nanoparticles in foods raise safety questions

These microadditives enhance color, flavor and freshness. But what do they do in the body?

1:28PM, OCTOBER 16, 2015

NOSHING ON NANO  Nanoparticles can make foods like jawbreaker candies brighter and creamier and keep them fresh longer. But researchers are still in the dark about what the tiny additives do once inside our bodies.


It seemed like a small thing when Paul Westerhoff’s 8-year-old son appeared, with his tongue and lips coated bright white. The boy had just polished off a giant Gobstopper, a confectionery made of sugary, melt-in-the-mouth layers. Curious about the white coating, Westerhoff, an environmental engineer, pored over the jawbreaker’s contents and discovered just how incredibly small the matter was.

Among the Gobstopper’s ingredients were submicroscopic particles of titanium dioxide, a substance commonly added to plastics, paint, cosmetics and sunscreen. At the time, Westerhoff’s lab group at Arizona State University was actively tracking the fate of such particles in municipal wastewater systems across the nation.

Titanium dioxide is also a food additive approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Ground to teensy particles measuring just tens of billionths of a meter in size — much smaller than a cell or most viruses — titanium dioxide nanoparticles are frequently added to foods to whiten or brighten color.

Weeks after his son’s candy-coated encounter, Westerhoff went to the supermarket, pulled more than 100 products off the shelves and analyzed their contents. His findings, published in 2012 in Environmental Science & Technology, show that many processed foods contain titanium dioxide, much of it in the form of nanoparticles. Candies, cookies, powdered doughnuts and icing were among the products with the highest levels. Titanium dioxide is also found in cheese, cereal and Greek yogurt.

“I began to question why we care about things in the environment — at a few micrograms per liter in water — if we’re freely ingesting these materials,” Westerhoff says.

Titanium dioxide isn’t the only nanoingredient added to food. Various other materials, reduced to the nanoscale, are sprinkled into food or packaging to enhance color, flavor and freshness. A dash of nano will smooth or thicken liquids or extend the shelf life of some products. Scientists have designed nano-sized capsules to slip beneficial nutrients, such as omega-3 fish oil, into juice or mayonnaise, without the fishy taste.

Story continues after diagram

Food scientists aren’t stopping there. They are downsizing the structure of a wide array of ingredients with bold plans to help tackle obesity, malnutrition and other health issues (see “Nanocreativity,” below).

But as scientists cook up ways to create heart-healthy mayo and fat-fighting ice cream, some are also considering the potential risks that might accompany the would-be benefits. Because of their small size, ingested nanoparticles may interact with cells or behave differently than their bulkier counter-parts. So far, less-than-perfect laboratory studies offer contradictory results.

Researchers, including those developing nanofoods, say more information is needed on the ingredients’ potential impacts. Current studies, limited to mice or lab dishes, often analyze megadoses of particles far beyond what any normal diet would include. Scientists need a better handle on what happens when people nosh on nanolaced foods daily, taking in small doses at a time, says Ohio State University pathologist James Waldman. He and others are devising tests to find out.

A pinch of nano

Over the last two decades, nano-sized components — smaller than 100 nanometers — have found their way into a wide range of products: clothing, electronics and cosmetics as well as food. But people have been exposed to, and have inevitably ingested, nanoparticles for much longer, says Andrew Maynard, director of the Arizona State University Risk Innovation Lab in Tempe. Since prehistoric times, people have been consuming nanoparticles found in natural foods such as milk (casein micelles, for example, are nano-sized particles that help calves readily digest their mother’s milk). Nanoparticles also creep into the food supply from environmental sources. Burning wood, oil and coal; wildfires; volcanic activity; and crashing of ocean waves release ultrasmall particles of metal, carbon or silica into the atmosphere and into the food chain.

Even with this long history of nanoparticle exposure, Maynard says, it’s highly unlikely that people had been eating the kinds of particles added to foods today. The distinction is important, he says. “Our bodies have always been exposed to nanoparticles, but they’re now being exposed to different types. We just need to make sure that our bodies can deal with the ones we’re putting in food.”What makes particles different today is not only their size, but also their specificity. The amino acids and proteins that coat a nanoparticle determine its shape and surface properties, which can enhance or reduce the particle’s propensity to bind to certain molecules. By fine-tuning surface features, scientists can control where or how quicklynanoparticles release their contents.

So far, only a few nanoingredients are added directly to foods or packaging: Titanium dioxide, silicon dioxide and zinc oxide are the most common. Larger versions of these ingredients have been used in food and medicines for decades and are considered “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, which requires that any substance added to food be evaluated for safety.

Unexpected interactions

Scientists have developed numerous ways to test the safety of substances that go into food, but most of the tests were designed decades ago, before ingredients began to go nano. Titanium dioxide, for example, was evaluated in the late 1960s, using particles larger than 100 nanometers. Human cells were exposed to the substance to test for toxic effects and to work out how much of it can be safely consumed.

But those safety tests may not apply to some nano-substances. Size and surface features can improve or impair a nanoparticle’s ability to enter cells. Some nanoparticles — including those considered safe by the FDA — interact with cells in odd or unexpected ways, according to several recent studies.

One study, published in April in the journal Small, examined the effects of silicon dioxide, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide on cells taken from the human intestinal lining. At high doses — higher than most people would ordinarily consume — all three nanoparticle types damaged DNA, proteins and lipids in the cells. Zinc oxide proved to be the most toxic. Lower levels of exposure to nanozinc oxide impaired certain proteins, such as those that help cells repair DNA damage; higher levels of the substance led to cell death.

Though it’s not yet clear if nanoparticles of these types would have toxic effects in the human gut, Gretchen Mahler of Binghamton University in New York says the findings show the difficulty of classifying a particular type of nanoparticle as toxic or safe. Many studies, she says, expose cells to very high levels of nanoparticles, focusing on the effects of a few large exposures or looking for signs of extreme cellular stress or cell death. She questions whether those safety tests are appropriate for nanomaterials.

Mahler’s lab group aims to pin down nanoparticles’ more subtle effects on the intestine using amounts that a person might consume in a single meal or day. Rather than just examining whether the cells exposed to nanoparticles are alive or dead, she evaluates whether they function the same way as unexposed cells.

In a series of experiments, Mahler set out to see what happens in the gut after a steady stream of small doses, the kind you’d get if you were eating nanoparticle-enriched foods daily. Working with scientists at Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she developed a three-dimensional model of the intestinal tract, composed of the various cells that line the human gut. The scientists tracked the effects of polystyrene nanoparticles on the cells and on the intestinal linings of live chickens. Though polystyrene, a polymer, is not used in food products, Mahler says the particles were ideal for testing because they can fluoresce, making them easy to track once swallowed.

The results, published in 2012 in Nature Nanotechnology, showed that small doses of the polystyrene nanoparticles created changes in the fingerlike projections that cover the surfaces of the intestine-lining cells. These tiny structures, called villi, are important for absorbing nutrients. After initial ingestion of nanoparticles, iron absorption dropped by almost 50 percent. But in chickens fed over a period of two weeks, iron absorption rose about 200 percent. Over time, the villi became larger, allowing more iron to enter the bloodstream.

Mahler’s lab used the same approach to study how nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide influence nutrient absorption in human cells in the lab. Preliminary results from the studies, presented in March at the Society of Toxicology annual meeting in San Diego, indicate that titanium dioxide nanoparticles in the gut change the way iron is absorbed, and silicon dioxide nanoparticles alter zinc absorption. Mahler’s group is working to piece together the mechanism by which these nanoparticles disrupt absorption in the small intestine.

Down the hatch

Most studies of nanoparticles in food focus on the gastrointestinal tract — the mouth, esophagus, stomach and intestines. Waldman’s group at Ohio State is tracking the fate of nanoparticles once they’re swallowed to see if they travel beyond the gut. In February, the researchers showed that nanoparticles force-fed to mice can reach the liver, kidneys, lungs, brain and spleen. Details were published in the International Journal of Nanomedicine.

“Particles are getting into the bloodstream, and once they’re there, they can go to any other organ,” Waldman says.

Fluorescent nanoparticles (green) force-fed to mice found their way beyond the stomach (top) to the kidneys (center) and brain (bottom).


The findings were not entirely a surprise, he says. In earlier research, in animals fed different types of nanoparticles, the particles were later detected in organs. But previous studies relied only on crude methods, removing organs and digesting them in acid to look for the tiny particles.To see where nanoparticles accumulate in live animals, Waldman’s group created a nanoparticle filled with quantum dots that fluoresce (SN: 7/11/15, p. 22). Working with Ohio State chemist Prabir Dutta, Waldman’s group designed particles with outer shells nearly identical to a food-grade nanosilicon dioxide. Because the surface of the particle is what interacts with a cell, the scientists buried the fluorescent molecules inside the silica shell. By doing so, they could ensure that it was silicon dioxide — not the fluorescent tag — interacting with the cell.

The method allowed the scientists to see where the material goes once it enters the body and then count the number of particles actually absorbed. Waldman says that knowing the path that tiny nanoparticles take is essential for settling questions about their potential risk and impact on human health. Scientists need to know, for example, if a particle will be absorbed into the bloodstream and where it will travel. They also need to know if it will stay or be cleared.

Waldman’s group plans to incorporate the fluorescent nanoparticles into the mice’s chow so they consume them regularly in their food. Every few weeks, the scientists will run tests to see where the particles accumulate and assess the animals’ tissues for inflammatory responses and nanoparticle-associated injury. The study will include newly pregnant animals to determine if the particles from food reach cells in the developing fetus.

Chew on this

The FDA has not erected new hoops for food manufacturers that use nanoparticles. Requests to use a food ingredient at the nanometer scale are subject to the same safety requirements applied to other food additives, according to FDA press officer Megan McSeveney. Manufacturers must demonstrate that the substance is safe under the conditions of its intended use.

In June 2014, the agency issued guidelines that go only as far as advising manufacturers to consult with the government before launching nanotechnology products.

So food scientists who are developing futuristic applications are scrambling to assess the safety of their downsized substances. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, food scientist David Julian McClements is creating nanoparticles using natural ingredients, such as casein micelles from milk or plant proteins, to encapsulate everything from vitamins and antioxidants to omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics.

Once they create a new particle, McClements and colleagues run a gamut of tests to see how the particle reacts in cells in the lab and in mice. Because the nanoparticles he studies are made from ingredients normally found in the human diet, the particles tend to break down during digestion in ways similar to foods. Such particles are expected to be safer than particles made of nonbiodegradable materials, such as titanium dioxide, McClements says. Still, such tests are needed before bringing new foods to the market.

Waldman and Mahler say that to realistically reflect what is happening with people, scientists need to conduct long-term studies, in both animals and people. By feeding animals low doses of a particle over several months’ time, researchers should be able to spot potential problems.

“I would study the animal’s overall health. If something specific is found, then you can zero in on that particular effect, that organ, that system,” Waldman says.

Ultimately, epidemiological studies — designed to track peoples’ intake of nanoparticle-laced foods over extended periods of time — would be most informative, the scientists say. The ideal would be to track large groups of people who consume many foods containing nanoparticles and those who eat fewer nanoparticles, monitoring their health over months or years.

Waldman says studies should include individuals with intestinal diseases and pregnant women — groups that could be more vulnerable to any potential effects. People who have inflammatory bowel disease — in which the intestinal wall is “leaky” — may be at higher risk of nanoparticles getting into circulation and reaching other tissues, he says.

Meanwhile, scientists agree that, based on studies to date, the nanofoods found on supermarket shelves are probably safe to eat — when consumed at “typical” quantities. A few nanolaced cookies probably won’t do harm.

Waldman says he doesn’t avoid eating foods containing nanoparticles. Westerhoff, whose son devoured the Gobstopper, agrees. Food nanotechnology actually makes food better, he says, “giving chocolate a smooth, creamy texture or preventing dry ingredients from clumping.”

Still, skeptical consumers, who cannot always find nanoparticles listed on ingredient labels, want to be assured that the additives are safe. While nanotechnology offers new ways of transforming the features of food, creating safer, more nutritious fare, McClements says, scientists must find ways to demonstrate the safety of new types of nanoparticles before they are brought to market. “As with any new technology, you have to be cautious about how you use it and understand what’s going on.”

This article appears in the October 31, 2015, Science News with the headline, “Noshing on nano: The tiny particles in what we eat raise big questions.”