Nanotechnologies and nanomaterials use
tiny particles of
nanometre size (millionths of a
millimetre) and have a great deal to offer to improve our quality of life.
However, as for any emerging technology or
development, there are potential downsides.
A challenge posed by nanomaterials is to
determine in what way their physical, chemical and biological properties are
different to conventional materials, and how this influences potential harmful
effects. In practice, new scientific methods have to be developped since current
methods may not be relevant to testing nanomaterials.
Do we have the tools today to evaluate potential risks of nanomaterials?
Continuously new nanomaterials are being
developed for a multitude of products. In parallel, our scientific understanding
and ability to explain and describe the observed properties of nanomaterials is
growing, but is still relatively limited. More importantly, our knowledge of the
potential harmful effects of nanomaterials is progressing more slowly than the
Scientific understanding is growing, but has not yet been able to provide
general descriptive models; more practical data and understanding of the
mechanisms are necessary to support this process.
Can nanomaterial cause harm and do they present a risk?
When considering if nanomaterials can
cause harm – if they present a hazard1 – an elementary but important
observation is that nanomaterials and
nanoparticles are in the size range of
our biological machinery. Therefore, nanomaterials are a class of
compounds that is toxicologically
‘new’, because it may interact with biological systems in a way which we now
only partly understand. However, size is not the only parameter responsible for
a possible toxic effect of a given
Inhaling certain nano-sized particules may result in local lung
allergic responses or harmful effects
on genes. Some specific types of
nano-fibres may cause similar reactions as asbestos including
chronic inflame mation. Additional
concerns are related to internal exposure, as
some particles may enter the bloodstream
and accumulate in organs like the
spleen. Nanoparticulate matter is able
to enter cells, which might in turn lead to
direct and indirect genotoxic
Meanwhile, new generations of complex and sophisticated
nanomaterials are specifically designed
for bio-interactions or have a self-assembling nature. These nanomaterials may
behave in complex dynamic ways, which fundamentally complicates the process of
scientific understanding. This novel class of nano-particulates notably includes
nano-encapsulates that have been developed to be used in food and feed products
and are already used for medical purposes.
When it comes to assessing the risk associated with exposure to
nanoparticles in real-life
conditions, the methods normally used, also need to be adapted because of the
specific properties of some nanomaterials.
This is time consuming and still requires considerable effort. For exposure at
the workplace, pragmatic approaches have been developed in order to aid the
assessment and subsequent control of
What are the environmental risks of nanoparticles?
The diversity of impact data and
nanomaterials makes it difficult to draw
conclusions on environmental risks of
Most of the available information concerns the aquatic environment and
virtually no information exists on the hazards of
nanoparticles in soils and sediments.
Increasing attention is being paid to potential harmful effects of
transformation products which are formed after the introduction of a
nanomaterial into the
Models that describe the release of nonoparticles, their distribution in the
environment and exposure of living organisms to them, are still scarce and so is
the data to validate the models. Progress in the development of the analytical
tools and methods to determine and measure nano-characteristics in complex media
are needed, to gain insights into the presence of
nanomaterials and exposure to
risk assessment for metallic
particles of zinc has shown that
the gap between effect levels and exposure levels is relatively large, so that
as yet, no risk for organisms in EU waters is anticipated. However, a similar
assessement for nano-silver does not exclude the occurrence of adverse effects on
What are the main knowledge gaps?
Four main areas require progress :
First of all, we seriously need data – i.e.
nanoparticle specific data but also
information on the use of nanomaterials/particles in products and their release
Secondly, we need to improve our scientific
nano-toxicological behaviour to enable the
step towards generalisation and abstraction.
Thirdly, we need to address not only simple existing
nanomaterials but also
monitor and assess developments of new and emerging generations of
Fourthly, we need to consider aspects of risk
governance and how to deal with the difference in pace between
nanomaterial innovations and our
scientific and regulatory capacity to assess the uncertainties and risks, and
ways of dealing with these potential risks and uncertainties.
Government, society in general, the scientific community, and the business
community need to cooperateto find ways of dealing with fundamentally new and
innovative developments in both materials and risks. This would add a firm
foundation for increased data availability and mutual understanding.
In general, the European Commission concluded that the current EU-legislative
framework, to a large extent, covers potential risks in relation to
nanomaterials. Yet current
legislation may have to be modified in the light of remaining gaps and new
information becoming available, for example regarding
1 For an explanation of the important difference between a « hazard » and
a » risk » in this context, see the short GreenFacts video on the subject: