Study «Nanomaterials: Effects on Environment and Health»
What are nanomaterials?
The term «nano» comes from the Greek word for «dwarf». In science and technology, we use it to define the order of magnitude «one billionth» (10-9). Nanomaterials have dimensions of nanometres (nm), that is, one billionth of a metre (one millionth of a millimetre). Nanotechnology relates specifically to structures between 1 and 100 nanometres in size, which brings it into the realm of individual molecules or even atoms. At such dimensions, materials can show significantly different physical and chemical properties from materials at bigger dimensions, which opens up a range of new possibilities for technology. There are already everyday products containing nanomaterials, e.g. in textiles, or in cosmetics, or in PET bottles.
Opportunities and risks of nanomaterials for environment and health
Experts claim some of the products already available on the market are having positive effects on the environment: batteries based on nanomaterials consume less energy and resources, yet are more efficient; substitution of PET bottles and nanomaterials for other forms of packaging should make it possible to reduce greenhouse emissions (according to a 2009 TA-Swiss study entitled «Nanotechnology in the Food Sector»). However, recent scientific investigations point to potential risks in connection with the use of nanomaterials. Although usually integrated into the products, if released into air, water or soil, they may accumulate and have a negative impact on aspects such as microbiological activity in soils, with repercussions for agriculture, or in terms of limiting the growth and reproductive capacity of aquatic organisms such as algae. The detrimental effects of nanomaterials on the environment can also transfer to the human population, either indirectly via the food chain, or directly in the event of exposure through the respiratory organs and skin.
Why conduct a TA-SWISS study on this subject?
The commercialisation of nanoproducts continues apace while new scientific information about the potential risks of nanomaterials for environment and health is still being elaborated and discussed. The regulatory framework in the nanosector is not very explicit and is only changing very slowly with isolated initiatives at international level. At European level, according to the latest Eurobarometer poll the population's confidence in nanotechnology is still intact, but the question of safety is becoming increasingly crucial, as is also evident from the publifocus on nanotechnologies organised by TA-SWISS in 2006. At the same time these scientific, economics, ethics and legal experts are openly concerned about the possibility of nanomaterials being viewed with growing mistrust by the population, as happened with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or asbestos. This could stifle an important, up-and-coming economic sector if the questions of opportunity and risk are not tackled and resolved in a timely manner. An interdisciplinary investigation of the potential positive and negative effects on environment and health is therefore not just interesting, but also necessary to provide the political decision-makers and the population with assessments that are as widely based and objective as possible.
Objectives of the study
- To provide an overview of present/future products and applications containing nanomaterials that may benefit or damage the environment· To determine which nanomaterials are relevant to health and environment, and among them which ones can easily reach the exposure levels that could affect humans and flora/fauna
- To address specific critical issues such as waste water treatment, disposal, recycling and long term health/environmental effects
- To determine which nanomaterials have the potential to become widely dispersed in the future thanks to the spread of the products containing them, and the possible risks they carry · To analyze the current risk debate on nanoparticles and to identify the relative ethical questions and the current risk management strategies
- To provide an overview of the current regulations at the EU and Swiss level, specifically concerning nanomaterials and environment, highlighting their positive/negative aspects
- To formulate recommendations for further regulatory developments and to weight such recommendations with respect to the economic potential of nanotechnology
The study provides for 11 work packages:
- Market overview
- Overview of the current research landscape
- Identification of products and applications with high sustainability potential
- Identification of nanomaterials with potential for damage to the environment and health
- Methodological approaches to the investigation of long-term effects
- Consideration of end-of-life aspects
- Evaluation of the public debate and characterisation of stakeholders
- Analysis of the ethical issues and application of the precautionary principle
- Presentation and assessment of the existing legal framework
- Overall interdisciplinary evaluation of the opportunities and risks
- Recommendations for further development of the regulatory framework and for the developers and manufacturers of nanomaterials/-products
The methodology for processing the working packages is based on the following approaches:
- Secondary evaluations: Desk research; Internet and literature research; analysis of the relevant specialist literature and the work of specialised bodies; plus evaluation of market forecasts and databases.
- Survey of experts; primary research methods are also used to complement the secondary evaluation. This mainly entails consultations with experts and telephone interviews with selected manufacturers.
- Methodological connection to PROSA (Product Sustainability Assessment): PROSA is a method developed by the Öko-Institut e.V. for the strategic analysis and assessment of the sustainability potential of product portfolios, products and services (cf. www.prosa.org). PROSA takes the entire life cycle into account and analyses and assesses the ecological, economic and social opportunities and risks of future development paths.
Project start: September 2011 completion | May 2013
Results and downloads
Available on completion of project
Nanotechnologies: produits, promesses, préoccupations
12 et 26 octobre 2011, 18h00, Place St-François, devant l'église, à Lausanne.
- Centre for Technology Assessment TA-SWISS
- Federal Office for the Environment FOEN
TA-SWISS Project Supervisors
- Dr Emiliano Feresin, TA-SWISS. firstname.lastname@example.org (E-Mail)
- Martin Möller, Institute for Applied Ecology, Öko-Institut e.V., Freiburg, Germany (project leader)
- Rita Groß, Institute for Applied Ecology, Öko-Institut e.V., Freiburg, Germany
- Andreas Hermann, Institute for Applied Ecology, Öko-Institut e.V., Freiburg, Germany
- Dr Wolfgang Luther, VDI Technology Center GmbH, Darmstadt, Germany
- Dr Norbert Malanowski, VDI Technology Center GmbH, Darmstadt, Germany
TA-SWISS Project Supervisors
- Prof em Dr Peter Gehr, University of Bern, Institute of Anatomy (Chairman of the Project Supervisors)
- Prof em Dr Ueli Aebi, Biocentre, University of Basel, Steering Committee TA-SWISS
- Dr Livia Bergamin, State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO, Bern
- Prof Dr Thomas Cottier, World Trade Institute, University of Bern
- Dr Ernst Furrer, Federal Office for the Environment FOEN, Bern
- PD Dr Philipp Hübner, Basel City Cantonal Laboratory, Basel
- Prof. em. Dr. Georg Karlaganis, United Nations Institute for Training and Research UNITAR, Geneva
- Huma Khamis, Fédération Romande des Consommateurs FRC, Lausanne
- Dr Katja Knauer, Federal Office for Agriculture FOAG, Bern
- Dr Karl Knop, Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences, Bern
- Dr Franziska Meister, Wochenzeitung WOZ, science journalist, Zurich
- PD Dr Bernd Nowack, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology EMPA, Dübendorf
- PD Dr Michael Riediker, Institute of Occupational Health ITS, Epalinges-Lausanne & IOM Singapore Pte. Ltd., Singapore
- Prof Dr Kristin Schirmer, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology EAWAG, Dübendorf
- Claudia Som, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology EMPA, St. Gallen
- Dr Kaspar Schmid, State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO, Bern
- Dr Christoph Studer, Federal Office of Public Health FOPH, Bern
- Ariane Willemsen, lic. iur., M.A. Philosophy, Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (EKAH), Bern
NanoSafety: Risk Governance of Manufactured Nanoparticles, European Parliament, Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA)
Nanotecnologie: opportunità, rischi e regolamentazione
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The project in brief
Many of the burgeoning number of products containing nanomaterials on the market promise great things for the environment. However, recent scientific investigations indicate that this proliferation brings potential health and environmental risks. In light of the new scientific findings, the study by TA-Swiss aims to provide an overview of commercial products containing nanomaterials and of future trends, as well as identifying linked potential opportunities and consequences related to the proliferation of such products. The study also analyses current discussion of risk management strategies and the associated need for regulation.
Project: September 2011 to May 2013
Products: Abstract and final report
Project Mandataires: Martin Möller, Institute for Applied Ecology, Öko-Institut e.V., Freiburg, Germany