Technologies reach a point in their development where safety becomes a concern. Just as the development of faster, cheaper, and more powerful cars lead to the development of preventive measures such as seat belts and enhanced braking systems, new developments in nanotechnology also call for preventive measures. Nanomaterials are an embedded technology, and as such, they are present in several applications. Their defining characteristic – being smaller than 100 nanometres – means that nanomaterials are rarely perceived. Despite their size, nanomaterials should not be overlooked. The same reason why nanomaterials are so useful is also why they might pose some risk: special properties of materials of that dimension.
For over 15 years, the EU has monitored and funded the development of nanomaterials. Special focus has been given to studying and understanding their potential harm to our health and the environment. Under this initiative, we now have much more knowledge of the risks posed by nanomaterials, and how we are exposed to them in our daily lives. Thanks to state-of-the-art technologies, several tools for assessing nanomaterial safety now also exist. It is now high time to apply this knowledge, so we can use and design nanomaterials in a safe and functional way. In other words, we need to bring safe by design materials to the market.
Safe by design materials combine predictive technology with previous work in this field to promote the development of newer materials and products. This approach significantly benefits three different key players:
The EU has also developed and heavily supported the use of Open Innovation Testbeds in recent years. These testing facilities focus on characterisation and assessment of a certain functionality. They implement and develop standardised testing guidelines to assess any product prototype. These testbeds are located throughout Europe and can be used by any innovator – small or large – to test their ideas in a safe manner. Similar to the safe by design approach, the testbeds reduce the financial, regulatory and safety uncertainties for innovators and have the potential to accelerate product development. The knowledge obtained from assessing the prototype can also be converted into new or improved testing standards that help keep regulation up to date.
In the near future, economy, industry and society will be more closely integrated. The advent of products that cater to the individual is already a reality. The trend is to have an ever-increasing number of personalised products and services. Such a citizen-centric economy means that the development of any new and advanced (nano)material in Europe will rely heavily – directly or indirectly – on the work done in testbeds using safe by design approaches to deliver faster and safer products to Europeans.
To achieve this goal, we must first understand that society’s perception and acceptance of any materials or products is central to this process. In short, Europeans should be able to see how this type of science and technology can influence their lives before it is actually developed. Mechanisms must therefore be in place to empower Europeans and provide them with transparent and trustworthy information. Within the field of nanotechnology, the European Union Observatory for Nanomaterials is an excellent platform for presenting the general public with the results and work of several European projects in a transparent and direct way. Efforts have also been made to develop a transdisciplinary risk governance council for nanomaterials as a mechanism to enable industry, regulators, academia and civil society to take part in discussions and share advice on nanomaterial risk acceptance.
Building trust is a difficult task. However, thanks to a series of initiatives aimed at the general public that promote transparent, empowered and safe innovation, I am confident that public trust will follow.
I joined the European Commission after over 3 years working in chemical risk assessment and biotechnology innovation in San Francisco, CA, USA. Before that, I concluded my doctorate studies in biochemistry and biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany, where I worked on single-molecule protein synthesis characterisation. It was there that I was first introduced to nanoparticles.
At the European Commission, I combine my scientific background in problem solving with risk assessment approaches and strategic analysis to tackle European issues at a policy level.
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