Health and Environmental Risks of Nanomaterials

Dr. Michael Riediker, Coordinator NanoImpactNet; Head, Research Group "Particles and Health", Institute for Work and Health, Lausanne, Switzerland
Corresponding author: [email protected]

Even minute amounts of nanosilver protect against bacterial growth, nanoparticles in cosmetics efficiently block ultraviolet light, and thanks to nanopaints, surfaces are always perfectly clean. The secret behind these effects lies in the altered physico-chemical properties common to the nanoscale.

Every day, new products containing nanomaterials appear on the market (materials with structures smaller than 100 nanometers). These novel products are very promising. Life will be easier, materials become sturdier and lighter, medical treatments have fewer side effects, devices are more efficient and consume less energy thereby helping to protect the environment.

We all look forward to the beautiful world promised by the nanotechnologies. At the same time, we want to make sure that we do not generate novel health or environmental problems. The same properties that are so beneficial for novel technical applications could result in nasty consequences if we do not properly control what happens to these nanomaterials.

For example, we welcome the characteristic of nanoparticles to roam freely in our body if we are talking about nanomedical particles. However, we feel uneasy about the prospect of technical particles getting into our air and the environment. What happens if workers inhale nanoparticles? What are the ecological consequences of nanoparticles being released from a product? Thus, for each nano-characteristic, we need to evaluate how we can benefit from it, but also what could be the potentially unwanted consequences to health and the environment.

Research in this field is demanding and requires the combination of a multitude of expertise. NanoImpactNet was created for this purpose. NanoImpactNet is a European research network on the health and environmental impact of nanomaterials. It is supported by a grant from the European Commission. This shows the EC’s recognition of the importance for a pro-active assessment of nanomaterial risk.

NanoImpactNet is a platform for exchange and debate on research ideas. It helps scientists coordinate their research, harmonise methodologies and create a consensus on best practice and priority research areas. The network’s initial 24 partner institutes have been joined by over 300 researchers from 40 countries across Europe and the world. More than 600 readers follow their deliberations in the NanoImpactNet newsletter.

A special feature of NanoImpactNet is that it actively includes industries, non-governmental organisations and governmental agencies into the discussions about research needs and questions. This exchange between researchers and stakeholders leads to very constructive discussions on strategies to ensure the safe and responsible development of nanomaterials.

Fears about the negative consequences of new technologies are rare. In the past, risks were assessed only after the technological development, during the wider spread of the technology. The nanotechnology revolution is perhaps the first time that researchers, industry and governments have worked together to assess and manage risks before the widespread adoption of a technology.

This change of paradigm promises to be very cost-effective and to bring considerable health and environmental benefits. Yet, it is a challenging paradigm because the estimated risks and benefits of these new technologies continuously change. Thus, the risk-benefit balance is a moving target. It requires that risks are taken seriously and we may have to accept that technologies are put on hold if the associated risks are considered too large at a given moment. In return, if a risk turns out to be lower than feared, we must allow a continuation of the associated technological development.

Let’s hope for a great future with nanomaterials!

Copyright, Dr. Michael Riediker (Institute for Work and Health)

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