Environmental benefits and risks of zero-valent iron nanoparticles (nZVI) for in situ remediation: Risk mitigation or trade-off?
The use of nanoscaled zero-valent iron particles (nZVI) to remediate contaminated soil and groundwater has received increasing amounts of attention within the last decade, primarily due to its potential for broader application, higher reactivity, and cost-effectiveness compared to conventional zero-valent iron applications and other in situ methods. However, the potential environmental risks of nZVI in in situ field scale applications are largely unknown at the present and traditional environmental risk assessment approaches are not yet able to be completed. Therefore, it may not yet be fully clear how to consider the environmental benefits and risks of nZVI for in situ applications. This analysis therefore addresses the challenges of comprehensively considering and weighing the expected environmental benefits and potential risks of this emerging environmentally-beneficial nanotechnology, particularly relevant for environmental engineers, scientists, and decision makers. We find that most of the benefits of using nZVI are based on near-term considerations, and large data gaps currently exist within almost all aspects of environmental exposure and effect assessments. We also find that while a wide range of decision support tools and frameworks alternative to risk assessment are currently available, a thorough evaluation of these should be undertaken in the near future to assess their full relevancy for nZVI at specific sites. Due to the absence of data in environmental risk evaluations, we apply a ‘best’ and ‘worst’ case scenario evaluation as a first step to qualitatively evaluate the current state-of-knowledge regarding the potential environmental risks of nZVI. The result of this preliminary qualitative evaluation indicates that at present, there are no significant grounds on which to form the basis that nZVI currently poses a significant, apparent risk to the environment, although the majority of the most serious criteria (i.e. potential for persistency, bioaccumulation, toxicity) are generally unknown. We recommend that in cases where nZVI may be chosen as the ‘best’ treatment option, short and long-term environmental monitoring is actively employed at these sites. We furthermore recommend the continued development of responsible nZVI innovation and better facilitated information exchange between nZVI developers, nano-risk researchers, remediation industry, and decision makers.