Nanomaterials are used for many different purposes, including food science, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, pigments and electronics. But how do they affect our health and the environment?
There is no simple answer. Although scientists have gained a lot of experience in assessing the safety and toxicity of chemicals, these tiny particles continue to pose technical and scientific challenges.
One such challenge comes from the unique properties each nanomaterial has. Nanomaterials have a larger surface area than other materials and this makes them more reactive.
With this higher reactivity come possible risks to our health and the environment. As their use increases, so too does our exposure to them.
Progress in testing nanomaterials
Despite the challenges, a lot of progress has been made in the last decade to determine the potentially negative effects of nanomaterials. There is an increasing amount of reliable and validated ways to test nanomaterials.
Researchers have found that standard test protocols such as the OECD test guidelines for chemicals can also often be used for nanomaterials but more needs to be done to cover some of their more unique properties.
Harmonised test methods through international cooperation
Research is ongoing with international organisations working closely with researchers and other partners to find new and reliable ways to carry out these tests.
One example is the ‘Malta Initiative’, international cooperation between ECHA, Member States, the European Commission and industry to develop and amend test guidelines to ensure that nano-specific issues for fulfilling regulatory requirements are addressed.
Another example is the three-year, Horizon 2020-funded project NanoHarmony, where research institutions work closely with the OECD and ECHA to accelerate the development of harmonised test methods for nanomaterials.
Computer modelling and high-quality data to predict properties of nanomaterials
As many different factors such as size, coating and transport processes influence the way nanomaterials react under different conditions, predictive modelling is needed to complement ‘traditional’ testing. This means drawing conclusions on how we expect the material to behave based on data that already exists for different substances, conditions and uses.
Organisations such as the OECD, ECHA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) are supporting the research community to develop grouping and read-across frameworks, as well as further promoting the use of computer modelling such as (Q)SARs for nanomaterials. Funding from the EU is also available.
Being able to predict how a certain material might behave will make it easier to develop new nanomaterials safely by eliminating any potentially harmful ones already in the product development phase.
- EUON Factsheet: Risk assessment of nanomaterials - further considerations [PDF]
- RIVM Report 2014, "Assessing health & environmental risks of nanoparticles"
- SCENIHR report 2006, "The appropriateness of existing methodologies to assess the potential risks associated with engineered and adventitious products of nanotechnologies"
- SCENIHR report 2007, "The appropriateness of the risk assessment methodology in accordance with the technical guidance documents for new and existing substances for assessing risks of nanomaterials"
- Danish EPA Report 2014, "Nanomaterials in waste - Issues and new knowledge"
- SCENIHR Report 2014, "Nanosilver: safety, health and environmental effects and role in antimicrobial resistance"
- OECD: Safety of manufactured nanomaterials
- WHO: principles and methods to assess the risk of immunotoxicity associated with exposure to nanomaterials
- Karolinska Instiutet, Institute of Environmental Medicine: Nanotoxicology: state-of-the-art and future research needs