Nanomaterial

white aerosol can sprays in front of black backgroundClick to enlarge
Nanoparticles can spread in the air across borders and also adhere to aerosols.
Source: picsfive / Fotolia.com

Little is known about the risks

Nanotechnology deals with the production and application of processes and nanomaterials composed of structurally definable particles on a scale of 100 nanometres (1 nm = 10-9 m) or less in at least one dimension; in other words, more than 1,000 times smaller in diameter than a human hair. At this scale physical and chemical properties of materials change, and this change can be applied in a variety of ways to develop new types of products and applications.

The influence of nanotechnology can already be seen in many areas of industry, including the automotive industry, engineering, the chemical and food industries, and the biotech and environmental technology fields. Till to date it is not compulsory for manufactures to label products containing nanomaterials. Starting from 2012 cosmetics and novel-food will be labelled in the European Union. Consumers are than able to make an informed choice.

Nanotechnology has a promising future, and it can be assumed that rapid developments will take place in the upcoming years. The number of products containing synthetic nanomaterials is constantly rising. Therefore it has to be assumed that exposure of human and the environment to synthetic nanomaterials will rise.

Although nanotechnology holds significant potential, it also harbours risks for the environment and human health. There is a serious lack of knowledge on the topic and therefore a broad-ranging need for research and regulation.

Due to their small size, nanoparticles can spread in the air across borders and also adhere to aerosols. Nanoparticles can penetrate living cells. They have the potential to concentrate in organisms and to accumulate in the food chain. Inhaled nanomaterials can enter the deep lung and cause inflammation or, at very high concentrations, lung cancer in the animals tested. For nanomaterials present in sun creams it is clear that sound skin acts as an excellent barrier. Orally ingested nanomaterials – for example in medical products – can be absorbed by the gut and then penetrate into the lymphatic system and into the blood.

Risks to human health and the environment are most likely with nanomaterials that are contained as free particles in products. A hazard is hardly to be expected so long as nanoparticles are firmly embedded in materials and can not be set free during use, recycling, and disposal. But also in this case it has to be clarified whether, and in which form, nanomaterials can enter the environment during the manufacturing process or product use, through ageing and degradation or during disposal and recycling. Therefore the consideration of the entire life-cycle is the prerequisite for assessment of an environmental hazard, also in the case of nanomaterials.

Activities of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA)

The UBA initiates research projects and expert reports, for example on toxicokinetics of nanomaterials, the connection between nanomaterials and cancer in human, the emission of nanoparticles during the life-cycle of selected products, the measurement of abrasion particles from textiles and the specific identification of synthetic nanoparticles in the air.

The Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA), the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and the UBA drew up a joint research strategy entitled "Nanotechnology: Health and Environmental Risks of Nanomaterials" in order to specifically identify the need for research on the regulative assessment of risk.

The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety set up the Nano-Commission of the German Federal Government in the autumn of 2006 to promote discussion on the opportunities and risks of nanomaterials in a stakeholder dialogue with participants from government, environmental protection and nature conservation, and the drawing up of consensual recommendations for the responsible handling of nanomaterials. The Federal Environment Agency participated in this "Nano-Dialog".

UBA publications on nanotechnology