Nanomaterials are generally thought of as being particles with a size from approximately 1 to 100 nanometres (nm). However, in a regulatory context, size is not the only thing that matters, but also other aspects that have to be determined before a certain material can be considered a “nanomaterial”.

In a legal context, the European Commission has provided a recommendation on how to define a nanomaterial based solely on the size of the constituent particles of a material, without regard to the hazard or risk. This definition covers natural, incidental or manufactured materials and underpins the implementation of regulatory provisions for this group of materials. Nevertheless, in some legislative areas, the driver for legal obligations for nanomaterials is that they may have different properties compared to larger particles.

Nanomaterials are also produced in nature, for example, in dusts or volcanic ash. They can also result unintentionally from human activity (e.g. car exhaust, burning candles). And for many years, some nanomaterials have been produced by industry. With the help of science we are now also able to artificially produce such particles or materials, by using engineering at the atomic level ('bottom-up' processes).

Rapid expanding

Due to their size, nanomaterials may have unique chemical, physical, electrical, and mechanical properties that are more pronounced compared to the same material without nanoforms (often called bulk substances). These properties could make them particularly suitable for many applications. The same nanomaterial may also have many nanoforms based on differences in size, the shape of the constituent particles, surface modifications or surface treatments.

Nanotechnology is rapidly expanding and a large number of everyday products on the European market contain nanomaterials. Look for instance at the development of better and more efficient batteries, surface coatings, anti-bacterial clothing, cosmetics, and food products.

Nanomaterials also offer significant technical and commercial opportunities. Nanotechnology has been identified by the European Commission as a key enabling technology. It is predicted that expertise and know-how in this field will play a crucial role in future economic growth in the EU.

However, the rapid increase in the use of nanomaterials combined with their specific properties raises questions about their potential effects on health and the environment. Clearly, there is a need to adequately assess and manage any potential risks these new materials may have and in particular the impact of modifying the surface of these particles.