Debbie Knight

Archive for the ‘research issue(s)’ Category

Lost bits of research history: Smallpox

In observation, research issue(s) on July 8, 2014 at 5:41 pm


Two news articles I read today told of several vials of Smallpox dating back to the 1950’s that were discovered in an unused National Institutes of Health storage room — in an unauthorized lab space.

A little scary, yes.

But you might wonder how could that happen?

In the past couple of years, I’ve personally cleaned out several laboratories of researchers who have moved on or retired. I can tell you that a box of vials could easily find its way to the back of a cabinet or deep in the permafrost of an ultra-low freezer.

Now when I cleaned out these labs, I didn’t find anything so dangerous as vials of freeze-dried highly restricted human pathogens. Thankfully!

But what I did find was a combination of disgust and amazement. Rusted cans of disinfectant, plastic containers of formalin-fixed mouse bits, microscope specimens that might have dated back to the turn of the century, chemical bottles with peeling labels and rusted lids.

Many years ago, when my department allowed researchers to scavenge equipment (perhaps a better term would be “upcycle”?) from a retired researcher’s lab, I found a long-dead octopus named Cornelius floating in a jar of murky formalin. He was circa 1980’s — not quite the 1950’s like the specimens found in the NIH lab.

Had these things not been removed from the defunct labs, these lost bits of research history might have passed unwittingly to the next researcher to take possession of the lab space.

A prime example of this can be found in a news story from three years ago. A researcher discovered a dusty old box containing experimental samples dating back to the 1950’s of his mentor who previously occupied the lab space. And the researcher found a wonderful new finding waiting to be discovered.

So, the discovery of long-forgotten vials of Smallpox in an unauthorized lab IS big news. If not, disturbing news.

But how those vials from the 1950’s wound up in a rarely used cold storage room may not be as sinister as it might sound.


Greener pastures for unwanted lab equipment ?

In research issue(s), Uncategorized on June 12, 2013 at 2:12 pm


My department has had some faculty turnover. Some have retired. Some have found positions elsewhere.

This means there have been several labs I’ve helped clean out.  And I’ve seen quite a bit of laboratory equipment, much of it functional, taken to “surplus.”

Now in concept that sounds pretty good. You send stuff to a surplus warehouse where other labs can go and possibly acquire the cast-off equipment. The ultimate in recycling and reusing, right?

Well, the reality is that at my institution the surplus warehouse only takes office furniture and office equipment. The lab equipment is sent to the landfill – even if it’s functional.

When I found this out a few months ago, it was a major reality check.

I thought back to how many things my department has sent to surplus in just the last few months. Had I known, I would’ve tried harder to find a lab that could’ve used it.

So, this week, a faculty member who is moving to a smaller lab space said to me, “Oh, we’re sending that to surplus.” And he had absolutely no idea what it really meant. The landfill.

One of the items was a perfectly functional biosafety cabinet. (For those who don’t know what this piece of equipment is: it’s sort of a big metal cabinet with a filtered ventilation system that allows you to safely work with cells, tissues, viruses, and other possible biohazardous materials .)

I couldn’t see one more senseless disposal of an expensive piece of equipment. These things, new, can cost thousands of dollars.

So, I used my connections and managed to find it a new lab home.

I’m also trying to find a new home for a big floor-model centrifuge. I’ve had a couple of nibbles, but so far no takers. But I’m hopeful that I’ll succeed. Research money is tight and someone out there must need a centrifuge.

I wish there was a way to easily put functional lab equipment up for adoption at my institution. A centralized warehouse, a website, I don’t know.

And for the equipment that no longer works? Maybe that could be put up for adoption as well. It could be cheaper to repair broken equipment than to buy new.

Or maybe functional or not, unwanted equipment could be sold on eBay and serve as an additional source of revenue for my institution.

Update: Good news! Found a new lab home for the centrifuge. I may have cast my net a little too wide because I’m still getting emails from various labs saying they are interested in taking this centrifuge. 

The wisdom in waiting to submit a grant proposal – a calculated risk or just plain stupid?

In research issue(s) on February 5, 2013 at 9:00 am

grant proposal due

Today (February 5th) is the official deadline for this round of NIH grant proposals.

Our lab had planned on submitting a proposal.

However, we decided to wait. According to my boss, who is writing the bulk of it, it’s just not close to being ready.

Admittedly, the proposal would be in better shape if we performed more experiments which would add strong support to the proposed research.

But knowing this doesn’t change the fact that deciding to wait is a huge gamble.

It’s tough to get NIH grant funding these days.

Some call it a crap shoot.

And you only get two shots to get a proposal funded.

And if you’re lucky enough to get a score on the proposal (rather than triaged out), you will also get some feedback in the form of a critique.

Admittedly, reading the critique is a bit painful, often resulting in tears or fury (or both). Criticism is sometimes hard to take — after all, you did write the perfect proposal!

It is always wise to put the critique in drawer or on a shelf for a while – allowing the emotions to die down so you can look at the critique in a more constructive (and instructive) light.

Ideally, the critique will give the researcher some idea of what the study section scientists were looking for. And it gives the researcher an idea of how to improve the proposal for the resubmission.

This is all well and good. But getting funded is better.

Yes, my lab, like all research labs out there, needs grant money to keep our research going.

But I also have a personal stake in this: my livelihood depends on this funding.

For me, no funding = no job =  no money.

This weighs heavily on me at the moment since my salary “well” will dry up in a few months. In exactly how many months, I’m not sure. I’m finding the “ostrich method” – sticking my head in the sand, hoping things turn out for the best – is working great for me. It’s certainly keeping the heartburn at bay.

I like the lab I work in. I love the research project I’m working on. I would really (really!!) like to stay and see the project through.

So you can understand that waiting to submit a grant proposal is a huge gamble from my perspective.

It may mean I will have to find another job — especially if we postpone this submission.

I have a friend who is in a similar “boat.” He’s currently looking for a research position. On paper, we look very similar – our skill set is pretty much the same. We’ve worked at the university for about the same amount of time. He’s having a hard time finding a job. Although for him it could be a matter of timing. I’ve found that other research associates who look just as the new funding cycle has started have a somewhat better chance at landing a position.

I’ll admit there are days where I’m not sure it’s worth staying in research — especially if I’ll only be in a lab for a couple of years before the project’s funding runs out. That’s usually when the research is just getting interesting. (But that’s a post for another day).

I’m not quite to the “panic” stage yet. I have a little time before I’ll officially be there. But I won’t kid you into thinking it isn’t a kernel of concern churning and gnawing away in my subconscious.

Waiting to submit the grant proposal is a gamble.

It could be a huge gamble for me.

But if waiting means it will be a stronger proposal, with a better chance of getting funded, it might well be worth it.

Just to be sure though, I think I’ll gather my assorted good luck charms while keeping my fingers, eyes and toes crossed. 🙂

Responsible science is not about cutting corners!

In research issue(s) on March 30, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Reuters reported on March 28, 2012 that many cancer ‘discoveries’ were inaccurate and irreproducible according to a former researcher at Amgen, Inc. This researcher, C. Glenn Begley, chose 53 findings that were published by reputable researchers in top-tiered journals. He tasked his research team to reproduce those findings in the lab. Out of the 53, the team managed to replicate only six of the studies.

One possible reason for this?

According to the Reuters story, Begley met for breakfast at a cancer conference with the lead scientist of one of the problematic studies.

“We went through the paper line by line, figure by figure,” said Begley. “I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they’d done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It’s very disillusioning.”

What the heck?! A researcher reported on something he saw one time?!

That is so wrong!

Scientists aren’t trained this way. Or at least responsible scientists aren’t.

We’re taught to repeat (repeat! repeat!) experiments several times to be sure that the results are “real” and not a fluke. That it’s a real and observable phenomenon and not something we’ve inadvertently built into the system.

I can’t speak for other scientific disciplines like chemistry or physics, but in biology, the systems we’re studying don’t always cooperate nicely. We may have to repeat an experiment many times because there might be a lot of variability in the measurements we’re taking.

Even when we use supposedly pure cell cultures, we’ll see some “bounce” in the results. And when you’re talking animal studies or clinical studies, it’s just that much more complicated to see a pattern in the data. Often the pattern is so difficult to see that statistics are brought in.

Scientists are also trained to approach the problem from more than one angle, to show the phenomenon in more than one way. Again, this is to be sure that the results are real and not something to do with the way we’re testing our hypothesis. So, for example, say we want to show that a drug is not harmful to the cells. We might add the drug to the cells and merely observe them (documenting it in photographs, of course). But that’s not enough to say the drug didn’t kill the cells. To say this, we would have to perform other techniques, maybe look at certain proteins that become expressed on the surface of a dying cell or look for damage to the DNA or look at the health of the mitochondria (the powerhouses of the cell – are they still cranking out the power or did they shutter up the factories and move on?). By coming at the question from various angles, the answer is closer to the truth.

Does an experiment work perfectly every time? Not always, even though we try to do things exactly the same way every time. There’s human error, instrument error, misalignment of the planets (for those who are a little on the superstitious side) and, of course, mother nature herself. Any or all of these things can make an experiment come out slightly different each time it’s done. But the pattern should be there.

Do scientists show their “best” data? You bet we do! We find the best photo that shows what we saw (every time, not just once). We show the best graph of the results we saw (every time).

Do scientists show results they’ve only seen once? If they’re ethical and honest researchers, absolutely not! Unless, of course, they explain that in the published article.

I am appalled that this researcher (the one who confessed to Begley) would act in such an unprofessional way.

Is there this much pressure to publish that the scientist would pluck one unreproducible result to show in his publication just because it fit his hypothesis?

All I know is that scientific conduct like that casts doubt on the scientific community and erodes public confidence in the scientific process.

So, come on all you scientists out there: avoid the shortcuts and do the good science I know you can!

Taking it to the streets

In research issue(s) on August 17, 2011 at 8:00 am

Full-page ad in today's The Columbus Dispatch -- back page of Section A

This full-page ad, calling for the public’s help for research funding, was in this morning’s newspaper.

The words (in case you can’t read them) from the Cancer Action Network:

“Federal funding is helping researchers at cancer centers like The James Cancer Center discover new treatments. But if Congress cuts funding and research stops promising new treatments may never reach patients. With 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime, we can’t afford to have our investments go to waste.

Text RESEARCH to 30644 to join us in urging Congress to protect our cancer research funding and save lives.”

Although this ad is clearly aimed at gaining support for cancer research, it will be interesting to see if this prompt will prod the general public into action. Scientific researchers — of any kind, not just of the cancer variety —  needs everyone’s help to keep research going!

Can a bicycle ride really end cancer?

In research issue(s) on July 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm

A car magnet promoting a fund-raising bicycle ride for cancer research.

What does a two-day, 180-mile bicycle ride have to do with cancer research? The Peletonia is a fund-raising event for cancer research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and JamesCancerHospitaland Solove Research Institute. And for the past two years, it has successfully raised millions of dollars for cancer research.

It’s a great way to sponsor cutting-edge research.

However, I do not agree with this year’s slogan: One goal, end cancer.

As far as slogan’s go, it is quite effective and very inspirational — something you want to have when you’re raising funds. But I think it’s misleading – and not an immediately achievable goal. It suggests that cancer is something that can be controlled and eradicated.

I am not a cancer researcher, but I am a biomedical researcher. The current theories on how cancer arises is that it takes multiple “hits” before a cell in the human body goes rogue and begins to divide uncontrollably becoming cancerous. These “hits” include genetic factors (mutations in your DNA that you inherit from one or both of your parents) and environmental factors (such as exposure to certain chemicals in your water, in your food, in the air, or in your homes).

So, to end cancer would imply that we will no longer be exposed to dangerous chemicals and radiation in our world. We no longer will be exposed to air pollution, cigarette smoke, radon gas. We no longer will be exposed to herbicides and pesticides on our foods. We no longer will be exposed to the ultraviolet rays produced by the sun. We will no longer be exposed … well, you get the idea. There are quite a number of environmental insults that we would need to eliminate in order to truly end the incidence of cancer.

Cancer is complicated. Yes, we know tons more about what causes cancer than we did a few years ago, but cancer is not one single disease. Even “lung cancer” is not really a single entity – there is adenocarcinoma, bronchioloalveolar carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, large cell carcinoma, and mesothelioma to name a few. Then there’s the staging. Doctors indicate how far the cancer has progressed by using a numbering system from one to four – a “one” indicates a better prognosis than a “four.” But how Bob’s lung cancer came about will be quite different than how Mary’s lung cancer came to be.

So, I think that the slogan “One goal, end cancer” is too simple and a little misleading.

Do we need cancer research? Most definitely!

Do we need improved early detection methods? Certainly!

Will there be one treatment for all? At this point, based on the fact that each person’s cancer has arisen in a different way, I doubt that there will be one treatment fits all. Yes, some chemotherapy drugs work well on a specific type of cancer, but not necessarily in every single case. I think treatments will improve and perhaps become less barbaric in the future. And I think hope lies in “personalized medicine” where treatments are customized for the individual patient. Mary’s tumor might be more sensitive to drug A while Bob’s tumor might be better treated with radiation therapy.

But until we think about the entire package, environmental pollution as well as genetics, and find ways to attack these issues from a global perspective, I think the “end” of cancer is mere rhetoric meant merely to inspire hope rather than results.

The dark(er) side of research

In research issue(s) on June 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm

The world of scientific research can be highly competitive at times. And this can lead to some questionable behavior from scientists – the darker side of research.

The labs in which I have worked have experienced some of these questionable behaviors firsthand.

1)  The stealth bomber. In the ideal world scientists should be able to talk openly to other researchers about their research, holding nothing back. This process can lead to even better science complete with better ideas and experimental design. However, it comes with a risk. If you share too much, a competitor with questionable scruples may just steal your ideas and publish the results before you even get a chance to get your results and publish them.

This happened to one of our graduate students a few years ago. She was at a scientific meeting and discussed her research with another trainee. The trainee took those ideas and ran with them, completing the experiments and publishing the results a few months before our graduate student could submit her own paper. So, our lab got “scooped” and because our research would now only confirm the other lab’s research rather than being the first to describe the phenomenon, it made it more difficult to publish our lab’s findings.

This was a huge lesson. And our lab was careful what information we divulged – often waiting to present research until the paper had been written and submitted.

2)   The fake-out.  This situation just happened this week. We have a collaborator (or so we thought) who decided she couldn’t wait any longer to publish the research we worked on together. As a clinician, she’s not always in agreement with basic scientists that if we wait to get the results from laboratory experiments, the story would be better, stronger. As a clinician, she publishes predominately case studies – studies that are about a clinical experience with one or two patients. She’s used to quick turn-around. But experimental studies usually take a while to complete.

Anyway, she decided to write and send the manuscript to a journal without consulting us. We had no idea that she was essentially “scooping” the impact the combined clinical and basic science studies would have had. If she had consulted us, she would have known that we were putting in a patent application for a diagnostic test – and it may just be that her published paper, which is considered to be in the public domain, will nullify the patent application.

So here we had a research “collaboration” that didn’t turn out to be so collaborative after all. The take-home lesson? Should we no longer collaborate with any researcher from this point forward?  I don’t think that’s the answer. Although I do think we will need to be more careful who we collaborate with in the future. Clearly, it won’t be this clinician.

3)  The tanker. My boss has experienced this in a study section – a study section is a group of scientists who look over the grant proposals that have been submitted to a funding agency like The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and decide which proposals should be funded and which should not.

In one study section, my boss witnessed a scientist tank his competitor’s grant proposal. And that proposal was not funded as a result of it. This scientist should have removed himself from the evaluation process to make it fair, but he did not choose to do this.

The lesson? Be aware there are flaws in the grant awarding system and your grant might not be evaluated fairly.

4)  The alpha dog. When researchers have successful collaborated with other scientists and it comes time to publish the results, sometimes whose name will be included as authors and in what order those names will appear comes into question.

I worked for one researcher who severely limited the number of authors a paper. Some of those who did the research were merely mentioned in the acknowledgments.

I’ve also worked with researchers who have argued over who should have the “first author” slot – this is the first name in the list of authors and is usually the person who actually wrote the manuscript in addition to performing many of the experiments. Sometimes there are two researchers who should be considered “first authors” which was more of a problem a few years ago – now there are frequently shared first authorships where a notation indicates that both first authors contributed equally to the research. Then there can be a fight for the last slot – this is the “senior author” slot reserved for the principle investigator (the boss of the lab). If there are two major investigators, there could be a conflict. Then there’s deciding the order of the remaining coauthors. This can be tricky. The way the labs I’ve worked in have done this is to list them according to their research effort.

It seems an easy process, but I’ve had my share of bumps and bruises on the authorship line. It’s almost a contact sport sometimes!

These are but a few examples. I’ve heard many other stories of questionable behavior, but I wanted to tell you about ones I can confirm, ones from my own research experience.

Rarely do you see the darker side of research. Most days, researchers freely share their experience with one another, freely share reagents, and are all-around good people.

Frugal times, frugal measures: An innovative model may reduce the cost of scientific research

In research issue(s) on March 27, 2011 at 7:44 am

In the university setting, a major chunk of grant money goes toward supplies and equipment needed by scientists to do research.

Traditionally, most academic research laboratories act as independent entities, even within a department. This means laboratory supplies are purchased by an individual lab, according to its own research needs. This also means that each lab is outfitted with its own equipment and instrumentation specifically used by its lab members.

This practice often leads to a redundancy of equipment within a department.

Not the best business model, I know.

Not many academic labs can afford to outfit themselves with all the equipment they might need throughout their research endeavors – especially as research needs change over time as experimental results point to new directions to explore.

It is not uncommon for a lab to use another lab’s equipment. This “sharing” of equipment resources is somewhat collaborative – though there are invisible “strings” attached, one of which is that both labs remain on good terms with each other. And nothing will destroy that working relationship more quickly than improper use of that equipment. So, the “borrowers” must tread carefully if they wish to continue “sharing” resources.

I was lucky enough to step away from tradition and participate in an innovative model for sharing lab resources.

Three years ago, I joined a research lab that was part of the Center for Microbial Interface Biology (or CMIB, for short). The central core of the CMIB was comprised of six individual labs that acted more like one large lab with six distinct research interests. During my time at the CMIB, three additional labs had been added. It should be noted that there are many more labs affiliated with the CMIB, but only the core nine labs participated in the shared resource model.

In the CMIB, all large pieces of equipment are considered communal. So, centrifuges, freezers, biosafety cabinets, thermocyclers, incubators, etc. are shared amongst all the labs – i.e., it does not belong to an individual lab.

The lab(s) responsible for equipment purchases are rotated as the needs of the community evolve. These purchases take a majority vote by the faculty members and include feedback from CMIB members, including research scientists, post-doctoral researchers, research associates, and senior graduate students. Truly, a community decision.

The advantage? This model eliminates redundancy in equipment purchases. So, one high-speed centrifuge serves nine labs instead of one.

And what about lab supplies? This model extends to lab supplies as well.

Pretty much all the labs use latex gloves, serological pipets, pipet tips, and centrifuge tubes, so these are staples maintained in a centralized storage room called the “core supply room.” And every year, in an excruciatingly long meeting, the core supply list is reevaluated, item by item. Some items remain on the list, while others are dropped or added based on the ever-changing needs of the CMIB.

A potential advantage to this system is that, in theory, the CMIB can work with vendors to reduce the cost of supplies due to the volume of supplies purchased. I say “in theory” because as far as I could tell, the CMIB has yet to successfully use its size for leveraging better pricing.

So how do the labs pay for the “core supplies’?  The metrics for calculating this is a bit cumbersome, but it goes something like this. The more personnel an individual lab has, the more money it will potentially need to kick in toward the shared supplies. But size isn’t the only parameter. It also depends on the type of personnel working in the labs.  Each class of worker is weighted in the formula. For example, a research scientist is assumed to do more research and therefore consume more supplies than a graduate student. So not only does the total number of personnel matter, but the number of research scientists, post-doctoral researchers, research associates, and graduate students working in a lab are considered when determining how much each lab contributes toward the core supplies. This is evaluated on a yearly basis.

While the advantages to sharing the cost of research supplies and equipment outweigh the disadvantages, I feel I must mention the downside of this model. For example, there is one lab in the CMIB that has such unique research needs that they pay more toward the core supplies than they actually use – i.e., this model isn’t really cost effective for them.

Another aspect of this model is the potential for waste. Here you have a room filled with supplies (envision full grocery store shelves) and unless the lab personnel are acutely aware of the cost of research supplies (and most are not), they might perceive there’s an endless supply of, well, supplies. This perceived abundance can lead to unnecessary waste, rather than using the supplies sparingly and in a cost-effective manner.

Even I, a seasoned veteran who understands how much supplies cost, had to make a mental adjustment when I left the CMIB and returned to the traditional model in February. I was amazed how I had grown accustomed to the “abundance” the CMIB offered.

Having lived in both cultures, I would wholeheartedly recommend more researchers adopt the shared resource model – especially in these times of lean federal funding.

While there are a few shortfalls that remain to be addressed, the shared resource model that the CMIB uses is a seemingly sound business principle – it reduces the overall cost of research while promoting a strong sense of community and collaboration that extend beyond the physical needs of the labs. Concepts that scientific researchers should embrace but often do not.

Please note:  all photos in this blog post were taken while I worked in the CMIB

Fallout of the NIH Budget: Making and breaking research careers

In research issue(s) on March 17, 2011 at 10:30 am

While I’m an employee of the university, the real source of my income comes from federal funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health.

At the university we call this “soft money,” meaning my salary (and job) depend on my boss getting grant funding. So, the fate of the NIH budget ultimately affects my livelihood.  (But that’s not why I’m writing about this.)

At the moment, my boss has secured funding for two years, so I’m safe from the NIH budget woes for a short while.

However, a mid-career researcher two doors down (who I’ll call Dr. V) has his career literally hanging in the balance. If he fails to secure grant funding this time round, he will be out of the research business, which is really sad because he’s a solid and enthusiastic researcher. He studies brain cancer – and he’s on the trail of a potential new therapeutic agent that could really help patients with glioblastoma (a brain cancer with one of the worst prognosis).

The federal funding budget has been in such sorry state for the past few years, and it is increasingly more difficult for scientists to secure funding for research. And in times of lean budgets, cancer research has fared fairly well, unlike many other areas of biomedical research. However, that doesn’t mean that funding for cancer research is easy to secure, because it’s not. Case in point:  Dr. V.

Dr. V has had grant funding in the past, but he hasn’t had any for a year or so.

He submitted a grant proposal last week – and the tension is palpable. The proposal is a resubmission, which means if it doesn’t score well enough to be funded, the proposal is dead and it cannot be resubmitted for further consideration.

It may also mean his research career is dead as well.

He was once an assistant professor on the tenure track to becoming an associate professor. And now, because of his funding situation, he is no longer on the tenure track, he has no safety net if he isn’t funded, and his paycheck has been cut in half.

Normally an optimistic person, his dire situation has made him pragmatic. At this point, he says he will be relieved regardless of the outcome. If he is able to secure grant funding, he’ll be able to stay at the university and be a scientist. Life’s good. But if he doesn’t secure funding, he will find another path – one that doesn’t involve science.

This will be a loss to the scientific and academic community – he is a meticulous researcher and a great teacher (not all professors are).

Dr. V is not alone, there are many scientists in similar situations across campus and across the nation.

This has a downstream effect on future scientists.

Many graduate students see their mentors struggling with funding – established researchers as well as young researchers. Many consider alternatives to academia for their future careers, such as industry, administration, etc.

It’s just possible this will create a brain drain in the near future.

This raises concern for the future of scientific research in the United States. Federal grant funding is vital in keeping America competitive in the sciences.

I’m not sure what will happen with Dr. V, but I hope he gets his funding. It would be a shame to lose another promising researcher.



Post-script:  I found this article after publishing this blog entry which might be of  interest:  “Mid-career crunch” published in Nature.

A brave new (nano)world

In research issue(s) on February 26, 2011 at 6:27 pm

If it weren’t for science…

  • There wouldn’t be antibiotics. But on the other hand, if antibiotics weren’t overused, we wouldn’t have flesh-eating, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • We wouldn’t have petrol for our cars. But on the other hand, if we didn’t use fossil fuels to make those cars move, we wouldn’t have such dramatic global climate changes happening today.
  • We wouldn’t have landed on the moon. And if we didn’t have rocket-launching ability, we wouldn’t have GPS or cable TV via satellites and our local space wouldn’t be crowded with potentially-hazardous orbiting space junk.

Who knows how today’s discoveries will impact the future.

Take, for instance, nanoparticles.  While nanoparticles range in size, it is generally accepted that the largest nanoparticles measure a mere 100 nanometers. This means it would take over 1600 trillion of the 100nm particles to fill one square inch cube.

These tiny beads are used in any number of consumer products. These include:

  • Sunscreens to improve UV protection by increasing the SPF,
  • Cosmetics and moisturizers to help them go on smoothly,
  • Automobile paint to improve durability,
  • Socks to keep them odor-free, and
  • Food to preserve the food item, enhance flavor, or improve nutritional value

And the list goes on…

The use of nanoparticles does not really alarm me – I think many will be beneficial. However, what concerns is that not much is known about their effects on human health and on the environment.


These tiny particles get into the environment where they are difficult, if not impossible, to detect. The impact on ecosystems as microscopic as bacteria or as macroscopic as plants and animals is not completely understood.

What we do know is that hard-working bacteria at sewage treatment plants can be harmed by nanoparticles that get into our waste water when we wash our odor-free socks in the washing maching. Researchers have found that silver nanoparticles may be destroying some of the bacteria which are used to treat sewage. The waste treatment plant “sludge” is often used as an agricultural fertilizer, so beneficial bacteria in the soil may also be harmed.

And it’s possible for nanoparticles to enter into the food chain. Researchers added gold nanoparticles to water (to mimic consumer nanoparticles in wastewater sludge) and used the water on tobacco plants in a hydroponic green house. What they found was that the gold nanoparticles got into the plant’s leaves. And when tobacco hornworms ate those leaves, the gold nanoparticles concentrated 10 fold in the worm’s body. So here’s an example of  bioamplification.

So why have manufacturers chosen to use nanoparticles in consumer products before scientists can fully understand the effects these nanoparticles might have on the environment? And why is the FDA and the EPA allowing it? Well, many of the particles used in the nano-sized range have been deemed safe when they are used in the larger (bigger than nano-size) form. But mounting evidence suggests that nano-sized particles, in part because of their increased surface area, may have very different chemical and physical properties than their larger counterparts.

Many nanoparticles will prove beneficial to society with no detectable harm to the environment. But we, as consumers, need to be aware that some of the products we use may be harming the environment and ourselves more than we know.

What can be done?

More research by scientists, consumer awareness as well as consumer avoidance of products that use uncharacterized nanoparticles, and tighter regulation by the FDA and the EPA are needed.