How Microbeads in your bodywash could be helping chemicals enter the foodchain

In 1976 chemical engineer John Ugelstad invented a technique on earth that other scientists believed could only be carried out in the weightless conditions of space. His discovery enabled the mass production of monodisperse spheres, tiny microscopic spherical plastic beads. The beads were typically 0.5 to 500 micrometres in diameter, about the width of 1 to 5 strands of human hair.

These little beads enabled new advances to be made in cancer treatments and helped create alternative methods for HIV, bacteriology and DNA research. Tiny latex beads still form the basis for some home pregnancy tests today and thanks to Uglestad’s discovery the medical use of microbeads has helped move drug treatments forward.

More recently, microbeads have moved from medical additives to exfoliators found in face washes, toothpaste, body scrubs, and other everyday beauty products. The non-biodegradable solid plastic beads are commonly made from polyethylene, polypropylene, and polyethyleneterephthalate, the same plastics used for single-use shopping bags and plastic bottles.

After washing off your skin, the microbeads go down the plughole and into the waste-water treatment plant where some of them become trapped in the filtering sludge, but due to their small size some microbeads pass through into our waterways and oceans.

Because their size and shape is similar to many plankton species, microbeads are eaten by marine creatures such as shrimp and fish caught for human consumption. Plastic particles from microbeads and other plastic items in the ocean have been found in the stomachs of fish, shellfish, turtles and birds and have caused harm to these creatures.

Plastic microbeads have been found to act like magnets around organic pollutants with reports indicating a single immersed plastic particle can absorb up to 1,000,000 times more of these chemicals than the water around it. The common pollutants including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides, and perfluorinated surfactants (PFCs) have been found to stick to the beads due to their large surface area and the chemistry of the plastics used.

This absorption transforms the microbeads into chemical carrying dots and new research published in the journal environmental science and technology found that when feeding on similar sized food in the water, fish also ate PBDE exposed microbeads from a commercial facial scrub. After just 21 days, 12.5 per cent of PBDE chemicals were found to have leached from the ingested microbeads into the tissues of the fish causing concern that persistent organic pollutants accumulate in the tissue of fish exposed to microbeads and other plastic debris in their environment. Research is now underway to determine the implications of this chemical exposure pathway for public health by calculating how much pollution could be entering this human food chain.

Although many large cosmetics companies have made voluntary commitments to phase out microbeads by 2020, they are easy to spot as plastic spheres visible in the liquid if consumers wanted to avoid them. Alternatives include sea salt, apricot kernels and ground seeds which can be used as biodegradable skin exfoliates.

Microbeads, are just one source of our oceans plastic pollution problem, and many other plastics grind down over time into small plastic pieces causing similar issues.

This year, Canada became the first country in the world to list microbeads as a toxic substance under the environmental protection act, allowing it to ban them in personal care products. The US has also moved to ban the production of personal care products and cosmetics containing microbeads from July 2017. It’s pleasing to see these other nations leading the way with their legislation, looking at the recent science research let’s hope that New Zealand will follow suit.


This post was originally posted in the New Zealand Herald



The science behind Rio’s green Olympic pool

How an accidental 160 litres of dechlorinating agent enabled green algae to thrive:

The green swimming pool has been one of the big mysteries of this year’s Rio Olympics. Why would one pool turn murky and green when the adjacent pool was still clear and blue?


Olympic pools at Rio this year, with one looking murky and green instead of clear and blue (image source)

The first official line from Olympic officials was that after extensive tests, they had finally pinpointed the reason to be a chemical imbalance caused by too many people using the water.

Mario Andrada, a Rio 2016 spokesman, said last Wednesday morning that “mid-afternoon, there was a sudden decrease in the alkalinity in the diving pool, and that’s the main reason the color changed,”

His interview with the NY Times stated that “He noted that a lot of people had been in the pools in the past week at the Maria Lenk Aquatic Center, and that their presence had touched off changes in the water’s chemical balance.”

The optimum pH for chlorinated pool water is 7.4, since this is the same as the pH in human eyes and mucous membranes and also gives good chlorine disinfection.

So could too many people in a pool make it more acidic?

Well the natural pH of skin is lower than chlorine at around 4.7 so his theory is plausible – too many people in a pool could have made it too acidic.

However, although I’m not a pool owner, I did spend my teens as a competitive swimmer in pools all over the world.  No matter how busy they were, I’ve yet to see one turn green.

Also, you would think that seeing the Olympics is an invite only event, they would have had a heads up around how many people were coming and adjusted for that!

Perhaps it wasn’t just the presence of people in the pool, but what they did in there.

We all know from our childhood paint lessons that blue and yellow = green, so what if all of the Olympic swimmers not only swam but also peed in the pool?


We all know from our childhood paint lessons that blue and yellow = green, so what if all of the Olympic swimmers not only swam but also peed in the pool?

Well, with at least 3.73 million litres of water in the pool,and an average person peeing only 800 to 2,000 millilitres per day you would need at least 1 million people to pee their daily amount in the pool in one day to make any significant impact on the colour  overnight. As there are only 11,000 Olympic athletes in total at the event, I also don’t think pool peeing was cause of the green hue.

Leaking bodily fluids into the pool does cause other issues due to an ammonia derivative called chloramine which forms from the interaction between the urine and chlorine mix. Chloramine however doesn’t usually have a habit of turning the water green, it just irritates the swimmers eyes on contact.

During a press conference today, Rio officials stated that on August 5th, someone accidentally added 160 litres of hydrogen peroxide to the pool.
Accidentally? 160 litres?  How on earth does somebody not notice that?

This is a man standing next to a 200 litre drum.  80 % of liquid from a drum this big seems like quite a lot of liquid to have been poured into the pool without noticing. (Image source)

Hydrogen peroxide is a de-chlorinating agent, with an equation showing that 0.48 mg of hydrogen peroxide removes 1 mg of free chlorine.
Chlorine is added to a pool to kill bacterial and keep it clear.  It breaks down into hypochlorous acid and hypochlorite ions which kill bacteria and microorganisms.  Although the exact mechanism for how chlorine does this is still unclear for some bacteria, it is thought to oxidise them by attacking the lipids in cell walls, destroying enzymes within the cell.
The accidental addition of hydrogen peroxide would have reduced the ability of the chlorine to oxidize matter and kill microorganisms giving them to chance to colonise the pool.
blog-algae-green-pool-algaeAlgae spores and bacteria are constantly entering the pool, being brought in by wind or rain or on the skin or swimsuits of people in the pool.
As living aquatic creatures, algae multiply rapidly and with the addition of sunlight can bloom overnight, thriving in warm water making it look cloudy and green.

So there you go, it looks like the acidic hydrogen peroxide altered the pool water pH while chemically undoing the job of the chlorine by acting as a dechlorinating agent resulting in a pool with perfect conditions for green algae to settle in to.



Nanotechnology helps milk bottles double the shelf life of milk!

New nanosilver containing milk bottles extend the shelf of life of milk up to 15 days (source)

New nanosilver containing milk bottles extend the shelf of life of milk up to 15 days (source)

We have already seen milk bottles get a nanotechnology upgrade with the titanium dioxide filled Lightproof bottles used to extend the life of UV sensitive vitamin B2 in the milk.  Now Brazil is solving the problems of the low shelf life of fresh milk through nanotechnology of a different kind – Nanosilver. Fresh milk has a relatively short shelf life of only a few days which can cause issues in rural areas where the transport times from dairy to customer are long.  For this reason, most of the milk sold in Brazil is UHT milk also known as long life milk which is sterilised using temperatures around 150˚C to kill most of the bacterial spores.  Anyone who has tried UHT milk will know its unique taste and I personally find it quite unpalatable!

Schematic showing how silver nanoparticles could cause cell death (Image source)

Schematic showing how silver nanoparticles could cause cell death (Image source)

A Brazilian company called Nanox has found a solution by combining the antimicrobial and bactericidal properties of nanosilver and mixing them with polyethylene to make antibacterial plastic milk bottles!Although the exact mechanism for how nanosilver kills bacteria is still not fully understood, it is thought that the nanoparticles anchor to the bacterial cell wall causing structural changes to the cell membrane and also that silver ions interact with thiol groups inactivating vital bacteria enzymes.

Schematic of silica core with nanoparticles attached around the surface to prevent them migrating into the milk.

Schematic of silica core with nanoparticles attached around the surface to prevent them migrating into the milk.

To remove the fear of the silver nanoparticles leaving the bottle and entering the milk, core miscospheres of silica ceramic were used as a central material base which are much larger than the nanoparticles and less likely to move out of the plastic. The silver nanoparticles were then attached to the silica to create a larger cluster of nanoparticles with a strong central core, and these were then added to the polyethylene pellets before they were heated up and blow molded into bottle shapes. Nanox have also been able to transfer the technology to flexible milk bags which a packaging type that some dairies use in southern regions of Brazil.  These bags have shown an extended shelf life from four to ten days and now have FDA and EPA approval for overseas use.

Data shows women led companies are better!

How’s that for a conversation starting headline?

Those who know my passion for diversity would expect a headline like that from me, but it actually stems from a report released this week by First round capital, a venture capital firm which provides seed funding to startups.

After analysing 10 years of data covering 300 companies and 600 founders they discovered that startup teams with at least one female founder performed 63% better than all male teams.

Companies with a female founder performed 63% better than investments with all male founding teams (source)

Companies with a female founder performed 63% better than investments with all male founding teams (source)

This comes after a Quantopian study earlier this year shows that 80 women CEO’s in Fortune 1000 companies produced equity returns 226% better than the S&P 500.

Of course I’m excited about this, and the data implies what women have been saying for a while, diversity in senior leadership positions is good for business.  However, it’s not all rosy out there, as globally in 2015 we still only have 18% female founders showing that there is still so much more to be done.

One concern I have is seeing the changing characteristics of our leading females, who say they’ve had to adopt male behaviours (being aggressive, sounding smart, and dictating) to advance their career.

Rock Health 2015 report on state of women in healthcare (source)

Rock Health 2015 report on state of women in healthcare (source)

So where should the world look to for positive female founder stories?  Apparently it’s Wellington, New Zealand  an ecosystem which has been described as light-years ahead in terms of it’s diversity and celebration of its female founders and employees.  What I love about the Wellington trend, is those incredible women named in the article have managed to keep their true to self feminine characteristics throughout their success showing that leadership comes in all shapes and styles.

Let’s hope the trend continues and this time next year we will hear more success stories as women gain both confidence and access to mentors in the startup world.

How ants clean their antennae could help the nanotechnology industry

Cleaning their antennae is crucial for ant survival, but how do they do it? (Image source)

Cleaning their antennae is crucial for ant survival, but how do they do it? (Image source)

Ants, the tiny insects that we usually try to get rid of in our homes are being showcased through research out this week that highlights these fascinating little creatures. Not only can they carry 50x their own body weight, but they have incredibly sensitive hairs on their antennae which allow them to smell food, follow pheromone trails and communicate with other ants. Being a small insect, that lives underground, ants spend a significant proportion of their time just keeping clean, and it’s is especially important that they keep their antennae clean otherwise they will lose their way.  Until now no-one has really looked at the mechanism behind how this cleaning process works and how we could copy it to help clean nanoelectronics. Researchers from the University of Cambridge have found that Camponotus rufifemur ants have a specialised cleaning structure on their front legs that is highly efficient at removing different sized particles.

Scanning electron microscope image of tarsal notch showing different hairs used to clean antennae with artificial colouring added. (Image source)

Scanning electron microscope image of tarsal notch showing different hairs used to clean antennae with artificial colouring added. (Image source)

The ant system consists of a notch and spur with three levels of hairs which the antenna is pulled through.  By watching the cleaning mechanism under a scanning electron microscope, they found that the three clusters of hairs work together to each perform a different cleaning function. Initially a set of ‘bristles’ (red on image) scratch away the largest particles on the antennae, then a series of ‘comb’ hairs (blue on image) remove smaller particles and finally a ‘brush’ (green on image) area gets rid of the smallest particles. The arrangement of three sets of hairs means the cleaning structure work as a particle filter that can clean different sized dirt particles with one single cleaning stroke and could help to solve some of the surface contamination issues faces in modern nanofabrication techniques  which currently have to be carried out in expensive cleanrooms.

How Mythbusters inspired me to make a live science show!

Mythbusters, we all know it, we’ve all seen it and after over 10 years on our TV screens we all have our favourite busted myth.

When I found out that Mythbusters were going on tour and doing a live show, I was so excited! I imagined a real live science show full of explosions and fire with scientific explanations about why and where and how.

Meeting Adam and Jamie from Mythbusters

Meeting Adam and Jamie from Mythbusters

They announced their tour dates, and sadly didn’t have New Zealand listed on their agenda, so I booked tickets for the closest event to me, Melbourne Australia.  Yes, that’s right, I flew to Australia just to watch Adam and Jamie blow stuff up.

Ironically, pretty much the week after I spent hundreds of dollars booking my tickets, Mythbusters announced they were going to add New Zealand to their tour, then Kari Bryon announced that she was leaving the Mythbusters show, and as one of the few TV females in a male dominated science show I couldn’t stop humming Alanis Morissette’s song Ironic.

At the show I sat next to some children who were equally as excited about it as I was, eager to learn something new and be entertained while educated.  We sat through the whole show which sadly didn’t contain any fire, or explosions (other than ones being played on video), or scientific theories and although we were entertained we were sadly not really educated.

After the show I asked some children what they learned from the show, and they said nothing, but they liked how the high speed camera made people look funny and how some guy got shot with paint-balls while wearing a suit of armour.

Audience member being shot with paint-balls while wearing a suit of armour at the Mythbusters behind the myths live show.

Audience member being shot with paint-balls while wearing a suit of armour at the Mythbusters behind the myths live show.

I was lucky enough to meet Adam and Jamie backstage and was reminded that they were not scientists, they were special effects guys, and they put on an amazing special effects show!  I however am a scientist, and one who is passionate about education and communication and being a positive female role model, surely I could do something about my frustrations!

I made a pact that night, that I was going to create a live show that was both entertaining and educational that would have fire and explosions and a female scientist lead.

Of course I have zero experience in making shows, performing shows, or knowledge of the health and safety rules of fire and explosions in buildings, but me being me, I said my idea out loud to a few people and before I knew it I had committed to a show!

After a lot of hard work from the Auckland Arts Festival and ThinkScience team and with the experience and creative genius of Gareth Baston, Nanogirls Live Science Show became a reality!

I wanted there to be fire, and explosions, because inspiring kids is so much easier with the flash bang stuff, but I also wanted there to be content, explanations and theories so that learning was part of the experience.  I wanted girls to be able to see a female role model in an industry that is usually stereotyped by men in lab coats, and be inspired that they too could one day be a fire starting (or any other kind of) scientist.

So here it is – the full one hour live science show with totally ridiculous experiments that made me laugh, jump and hide in fear!

If you are short on time and want to skip to the big bang, minute 51 is the one for you.

Global Impact Visas – why a technology rich New Zealand ecosystem needs them

The late Sir Paul Callaghan (image source)

The late Sir Paul Callaghan (image source)

“One hundred inspired New Zealand entrepreneurs can turn this country around.”  Sir Paul Callaghan

Those words led me to being in a really unexpected place this morning, listening to the Prime Minister give his speech at the National Party’s annual conference.

I was there specifically to hear his announcements on something I’m passionate about, the use of immigration policy to help attract high-value entrepreneurs to New Zealand particularly the idea of a Global Impact Visa (GIV).

Today the government officially announced it would be considering them.

John Keys official speech said that the government “will consider a new global impact visa targeted at young, highly-talented and successful technology entrepreneurs and start-up teams, who want to be based in New Zealand, employ talented Kiwis and reach across the globe.”

Prime Minister John Key announcing the Global Impact Visas at the National Party Conference today.

Prime Minister John Key announcing the Global Impact Visas at the National Party Conference today.

The question arises of what should these visas look like in order to shape a global export focussed New Zealand? I think its an exciting time to be in as we can create something with a unique design for a fast changing economy.

From conversations I’ve been involved in, the purpose of the visa is to give a limited number of high impact entrepreneurs and investors the ability to establish or be involved in new ventures each year by moving to New Zealand. It will be important that this visa be flexible around the concept of how success is measured, which can not just be financial success if we are to attract entrepreneurs with global impact potential.

To ensure that the programme is robust and adds value to New Zealand’s core capabilities, it would be a good move for the government to actively collaborate with the private sector on the development and implementation of these visas.

One thing that has been incredible so far with my experience of the conversations around Global Impact Visas, has been the insights gained from a talented pool of globally minded entrepreneurs and investors both from New Zealand and from overseas. These conversations have helped to shape a new type of visa concept that is more flexible than those that other countries offer. I have nothing but great things to say about Immigration New Zealand, Government agencies and organisations like Kiwi Connect who have been providing insight on how to create a new high value solution.

As I spend time on the West Coast of the US, some of my entrepreneur friends who live in Silicon Valley and LA find themselves stuck because they dropped out of university (or never even started) in order to pursue their tech creating dream.  This is great until you see the points system that our immigration systems rate you on which focus points on how much work experience you have, how many tertiary degrees you have and how much money you have, which scores unfavourably for many incredible young tech entrepreneurs.  We only have to look at our current non degree holding home grown stars, Sam Morgan, Peter Beck and Sir Peter Jackson to see that our current scoring system can let incredible people fall through the cracks.

Peter Beck has the potential to be one of the worlds most globally impactful entrepreneurs, but would he make it to New Zealand with its current immigration visa process? (Image Source)

Peter Beck has the potential to be one of the worlds most globally impactful entrepreneurs, but would he make it to New Zealand with its current immigration visa process? (Image Source)

This programme will need to find a way to rank potential candidates on merit, which can include their local and global impact potential. As the ranking system is developed, I think it needs to ensure that those who do not qualify under our existing visa schemes, but have potential for impacting New Zealand enterprises, have a visa entry route which recognises their unique skills.

Imagine the mentoring, experience, knowledge and creativity that could take place in local businesses if New Zealand brought in a few highly talented entrepreneurs and investors who already wanted to live here but couldn’t?

One thing I have seen is how fast successful start-ups grow, and the potential that bringing in one key entrepreneur could have in creating many new local jobs.


The concrete jungle that is Silicon Valley is a very different landscape to the greenery of New Zealand (image source)

Everybody knows the name Silicon Valley they know what it does and what type of people live there – if you want to work in tech, you go to the Valley, that’s how strong the brand of a place can be.  The valley however, is a concrete jungle, it’s expensive and some of those in it are starting to look for greener, cheaper options to call home.  As a passionate advocate for New Zealand moving towards high tech, high IP exports, the potential of bringing in some of those tech savvy entrepreneurs moves us closer to that reality of becoming a country with an innovation brand that the word will recognise.

I am proud to be a New Zealander with a passion to increase our country’s economic development in clean, green technologies and really think that, if designed correctly, the new Global Impact Visa could support Sir Paul Callaghans predictions and help “turn this country around”.