Nanomaterials: Effects on Environment and Health
In progress from 01-09-2011 to 30-05-2013
Project manager: Emiliano Feresin
Environment, Ethics, Expert-based, Nanotechnology, Risk
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.
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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.
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.
The main aims of this project are:
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