Nanoplastics in Our Environment: Small Particles with Big Challenges

Date: April 27, 2022 4:00 pm (ET)


  • Nathalie Tufenkji
    McGill University

Abstract: The degradation of bulk plastics in the environment leads to the release of microplastics that can contaminate water supplies, agricultural fields, and foods we consume. Weathering of a single microplastic particle can yield up to billions of nanoplastics and nanoplastic pollution is expected to be ubiquitous in the environment. Nanoplastics are potentially more hazardous than microplastics because they can cross biological membranes; yet, there is little data on the occurrence, fate and impacts of nanoplastics. A key challenge in understanding the environmental burden of nanoplastics is the detection of such small, carbon-based particles in complex natural matrices such as soils.

 Environmental nanoplastics are often thought of as an extension of microplastics with a distinction based on an arbitrary size cut-off, typically 100 nm or 1000 nm. In our view, in terms of environmental implications and analytical challenges, a size cut-off distinction provides little guidance. While a consensus on the precise definition of “nanoplastic” has yet to be reached, we advocate for a characteristic-based distinction between nanoplastics and microplastics. Based on existing literature and analytical methods, we present a set of characteristics, distinct from microplastics and other contaminants, that define environmental nanoplastics.

This lecture will present an overview of our work aimed at overcoming challenges to better understand the fate and impacts of nanoplastics in terrestrial and aquatic environments. I will discuss new approaches for detection of nanoplastics in complex matrices and recent advances in our understanding of the toxicity of nanoplastics.

Biography: Nathalie Tufenkji is a Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at McGill University where she holds the Tier I Canada Research Chair in Biocolloids and Surfaces. She works in the area of particle-surface interactions with applications in protection of water resources, plastic pollution as well as the discovery of natural antimicrobials. Professor Tufenkji was awarded the Killam Research Fellowship, the Engineers Canada Award for the Support of Women in the Engineering Profession, the Chemical Institute of Canada Environment Award, an Early Career Research Excellence Award by the Faculty of Engineering at McGill University, the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award in Science and Technology, and the Hatch Innovation Award of the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineers.  She was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada in 2016 and the Canadian Academy of Engineering in 2020. Beyond her research and teaching roles, Professor Tufenkji also serves as Associate Director of the Brace Center for Water Resources Management at McGill and has co-chaired several major international conferences. She has also served on the editorial advisory boards of the journals Environmental Science and Technology, npj Clean Water, Water Research, Colloids and Surfaces B, Advances in Colloid and Interface Science, and Environmental Science: Nano.