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Europe takes the lead on nanotech safety

Many of the 14 million construction workers employed in Europe don’t even know that they are working with nanomaterials. Image Credit: Shutterstock/Dmitry Kalinovsky.
Many of the 14 million construction workers employed in Europe don’t even know that they are working with nanomaterials. Image Credit: Shutterstock/Dmitry Kalinovsky.

Nanomaterials are revolutionising electronics, paints, construction materials and even cosmetics. But are nanomaterials safe? Scientists are optimistic that the answer is yes, but a major European research effort aims to make sure.

At the nanoscale, where nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes and nanoparticles are just a tiny fraction of the diameter of a human hair, completely new science takes over. Gold, for example, that familiar shiny, yellow metal, reacts with light differently when in the form of tiny ball-like nanoparticles suspended in a liquid to appear red.

But the novel properties of nanomaterials have a potential flipside. Nanomaterials are so tiny that they can get inside cells if they get into the body, so regulators need to know if workers and consumers could be affected.

Even though nanomaterials are used in very small quantities in products, these tiny particles might leach out during use or when thrown away or recycled. Scientists want to know if nanomaterials can build up in soil and water, harming the environment and wildlife.

New nanomaterials are being developed at an astonishing rate so the task of understanding and predicting the potential impact of these tiny particles on people and the environment – and making sure that the products that use them are safe – is an urgent one.

‘We will see more complex materials that will be radically different from anything we have seen before,’ said Professor Kenneth Dawson of University College Dublin, who is coordinating the four-year FutureNanoNeeds project to explore the next generation of nanomaterials and their potential impact on biological systems.

‘The aim is to look into the future and roadmap those materials that will become important,’ he said.

By looking at safety issues before products are on the market, the FutureNanoNeeds project will help manufacturers introduce nanomaterials with confidence, giving consumers much-needed reassurance.

One of the groups of nanomaterials identified as ‘one to watch’ is the mineral perovskite, which promises more efficient harvesting of solar energy.

Although it is too early to be sure, Prof. Dawson said the consortium’s investigation has not seen anything yet with perovskites that excites concerns.

It is not a given that nanotechnologies will be more risk-prone than existing or other new technologies. ‘With proactive planning and foresight, manufacturers will be sure that nanomaterials are safe in advance or, if there is a risk, there will be a plan in place,’ said Prof. Dawson.

In fact, so far the news seems to be promising.

Good news

‘No-one has discovered toxicity yet that is off the scale,’ said Professor Éva Valsami-Jones of the University of Birmingham, UK and coordinator of the EU NanoMILE project.

But because there are so many different and diverse nanomaterials, Professor Valsami-Jones is developing biological ways of testing large numbers of samples simultaneously for toxicological and environmental effects. The beauty of this approach, she said, is that it will identify any effects – even unexpected ones.

‘No-one has discovered toxicity that is off the scale.’

Professor Éva Valsami-Jones, University of Birmingham, UK

So far, although initial results indicate that nanomaterials behave in a distinct way, their toxicology is not radically different.

‘As long as (nanomaterials are) within the scale, compared to chemicals we already know about, we just have to be aware.’

It means that the best course of action is to make sure that products using nanomaterials are designed in a way that reduces the risks of any possible danger, said Professor Valsami-Jones.

‘Let’s take the information we have and use it in a way that will enable the safer design of nanoparticles,’ she said.

This approach is just what the EUR 50 million EU-funded NANoReg project, coordinated by regulatory expert Dr Tom van Teunenbroek from the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, aims to support by streamlining the way in which nanomaterials are assessed.

By the time the project is completed in 2016, the plan is to have a common approach for testing the potential risks that nanomaterials might pose for workers, consumers, and the environment.

A year into the project, the 60-plus strong consortium has started testing in the test tube and in living organisms with similar nanomaterials such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, silver nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes. The team's efforts have already pinpointed gaps in scientific knowledge where more data is needed, and identified where there could be an impact on regulation, said Dr van Teunenbroek.


Nanomaterials may be high tech, but they are already being added to construction materials like cement, concrete, insulation panels, flame-retardants, and even pavements. Many of the 14 million construction workers employed in Europe, however, don’t know that they are working with nanomaterials.

‘Information from the raw material manufacturer is often lost,’ said Dr Jesús López de Ipiña of Tecnalia Research and Innovation in Spain, whose project SCAFFOLD is checking the nanomaterial safety precautions used on construction sites. ‘As a consequence, it is very difficult for an average construction company to conduct a proper risk assessment and (create) a safe workplace for its employees.’

Other key industries like paints, inks, and pigments, where nanomaterials are being introduced now, also need to know the possible risks, says Carlos Fito, coordinator of NanoMICEX based at ITENE, a logistics and packaging research centre in Valencia, Spain.

Over the last three years, this effort has looked at how to handle some of the most commonly used nanomaterials. With its industrial partners, the project has devised proprietary chemical treatments that reduce toxicity of zinc oxide nanoparticles during the making of paints and inks.

Concerted effort

These and other projects, such as SANOWORK that is developing safer manufacturing practices and GUIDEnano that has designed a safety checklist for industrial users of nanomaterials, are part of a concerted effort by the European Union to understand and minimise the risks.

By encouraging international organisations and institutions to work together on nanomaterial toxicity, risk management, and common regulations, the NanoSafety Cluster aims to take the initiative on what is a global problem.

NanoSafety Cluster

With a common goal of ensuring that Europe’s consumers can have confidence that manufacturers are introducing nano-based products safely and for the benefit of society, the NanoSafety Cluster brings together the expertise and experience of over 750 international partners.

Under the Seventh Framework Programme, the EU's 2007 to 2013 research funding programme, the NanoSafety Cluster brought together 48 Europe-wide collaborative projects on nanomaterial toxicity and exposure monitoring, risk management, and regulation, representing a total of EUR 177 million in EU funding. The effort continues under Horizon 2020, which runs from 2014 to 2020.

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