Should modern living carry a health warning?
13 September 2007
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 & 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 & 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 & Rural Affairs (Defra); the Ministry of Defence (MOD); the Medical Research Council (MRC); the Welcome Trust; the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC); the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Health Protection Agency (HPA).
NERC Press Office
Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411561
Mob: 07917 557215
Professor Mike Moore
Plymouth Marine Laboratory
Tel: 01752 633120
1. Programme co-ordinator Mike Moore is based at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), an independent, impartial provider of scientific research, contract services and advice for the marine environment, with a focus on understanding how marine ecosystems function and reducing uncertainty about the complex processes and structures that sustain life in the seas and their role in the Earth system. As one of the world's first truly multidisciplinary marine research centres, PML delivers highly innovative research and solutions for national and international marine and coastal programmes. The research at PML is timely and highly relevant to UK and international societal needs and its research, development and training.
2. Dr Eva Valsami-Jones is based at the Natural History Museum. Winner of the 2006 Independent award for the UK's favourite museum, gallery or heritage attraction at the Museum and Heritage Awards for Excellence, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.
3. The Natural Environment Research Council funds world-class science, in universities and its own research centres, that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It is tackling this century's major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. NERC receives around £370m a year from the Government's science budget and leads in providing independent research and training in the environmental sciences.
4. The Medical Research Council is dedicated to improving human health through excellent science. It invests on behalf of the UK taxpayer. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health research, carried out in universities, hospitals and a network of its own units and institutes. The MRC liaises with the Health Departments, the National Health Service and industry to take account of the public's needs. The results have led to some of the most significant discoveries in medical science and benefited the health and wealth of millions of people in the UK and around the world.
5. The Wellcome Trust is the largest charity in the UK. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending around £500m each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing.
6. The Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research relevant to business, the public sector and voluntary organisations. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2007-08 is £181m. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes.
7. The Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC is investing £650m this year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research.
8. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.
9. The Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380m in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.
10. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) is an independent body that protects the health and well-being of the population. The Agency plays a critical role in protecting people from infectious diseases and in preventing harm when hazards involving chemicals, poisons or radiation occur. We also prepare for new and emerging threats, such as a bio-terrorist attack or virulent new strain of disease.
Press release: 35/07
- Plymouth Marine Laboratory
- Natural History Museum
- Medical Research Council
- Wellcome Trust
- Economic & Social Research Council
- Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council
- Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council
- Research Councils UK
- Health Protection Agency
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