Nanotechnologies – identifying and grasping opportunities, assessing and minimizing risks
They are tiny in size, but have a huge effect. Nanomaterials provide many products with new or improved features: switchable adhesives can be precisely cured and removed again, beverage packaging becomes more lightweight, and photovoltaic modules are being produced as flexible films. As a result the term “nanotechnology” evokes associations of technological progress and innovative products. Nanomaterials are also seen as a source of hope in the field of environmental protection because their use may facilitate the development of environmentally-friendly products and help the conservation of valuable resources and energy sources.
However, an extensive use of Nano materials also involves the risks of previously unknown negative effects on human health and the environment. Due to their relatively large surface area, they can act differently to the larger related chemicals, even though their chemical composition is the same. Although knowledge about the severe effects of the most important Nano materials has significantly improved in recent years, there are still critical gaps in knowledge, e.g. in terms of possible long-term effects on human health and the environment.
Human and environmental safety
In an ongoing project (“Ensuring proper risk assessment of nanomaterials to establish a precaution-based regulatory framework for their production and use” (in progress)) Oeko-Institut is involved in the standardization process for the characterization and measurement of nanomaterials at international and European level. Standardization is an essential prerequisite for effective implementation of measures aimed at minimizing potential environmental and health effects of nanomaterials. A key task of Oeko-Institut’s project is to support the standardization bodies ISO and CEN and the international OECD working group on nanomaterials in the development of clear standards and recommendations, e.g. by providing expert support in the definition of nanomaterials and in the handling of industrial waste which contains nanomaterials. In this context, Oeko-Institut insists that high priority is given to an even-handed application of the precautionary principle. Another important part of the project is to provide European NGOs with the knowledge gathered from the standardization processes and to strengthen their political influence in the area of standardization.
Transparency on application areas and life cycle of nanomaterials
Most newly developed types of nanomaterials are still largely used in niche markets. However, nanomaterials, to an increasing extent, are also being used in consumer products, and therefore are already present in cosmetics, food and other everyday products. In many cases, manufacturers do not adequately inform consumers of the use of nanomaterials, the associated benefits, as well as the potential risks for human health and the environment. This is also attributable to the fact that many questions about the risks of nanomaterials concerning human health and the environment are still outstanding. In particular, a systematic monitoring of the various applications of nanomaterials and appropriate conclusions with regard to risk management are missing. In this situation, precaution-based tools such as a nanoproduct register or a nanomaterial registry can provide important information regarding risk assessment. Oeko-Institut has estimated the costs and benefits of a nanoproduct register that is required by authorities, and environmental and consumer organizations. Oeko-Institut’s study shows that a register based on existing substance and product regulations would cause significantly fewer costs than an autonomous register for the companies obliged to register.
Nanomaterials and sustainability
Manufacturers and developers of nanomaterials should systematically analyze, already during the product development phase, how the application of nanomaterials measures up in sustainability terms. For this purpose, Oeko-Institut has developed instruments and approaches for dealing responsibly with nanotechnologies and nanoproducts: With its “Sustainability Check for Nanoproducts”, Oeko-Institut is making a self-evaluation tool available for manufacturers and developers which can be used during the development of such products, enabling early identification of opportunities and risks, and providing suggestions for strategic optimization of new developments. The most important goal is always to keep sustainability criteria in mind already during the development process of nanoapplications.
Oeko-Institut’s experts have used their Sustainability Check for nanoproducts to examine more than ten examples from promising application fields of nanotechnology, and analyzed them in terms of their energy and raw material requirements. The likelihood of rebound effects occurring due to increased nanotechnology use, which would undermine the sustainability of such nanoproducts, was also analyzed.
Let’s take neodymium magnets as an example. Neodymium magnets are an important component in many electrical applications such as wind turbines. Neodymium magnets need other rare earths besides neodymium, and the recovery of these rare earths involves the release of toxic and radioactive substances. Nanograins can be used to significantly increase the performance of neodymium magnets, which conserves valuable resources. Rebound effects may occur when the material is used widely and taken up by other application fields on the basis of its effectiveness.
Legal framework for the use of nanomaterials
In the course of regulation development, it should – from Oeko-Institut’s point of view – be taken into account that not all development trends of nanotechnologies are to be supported equally. For example, in the case of particularly high-risk applications, it may be necessary to limit the type of products and applications. It needs to be taken into account, however, that nanotechnolgies are often used to reduce or eliminate the current environmental problems resulting from the use of conventional technologies and products Brominated flame retardants in plastics, for example, which are of toxicological concern, can be replaced by less hazardous nanomaterials. The functional substitution of substances of very high concern by innovative nanotechnology solutions with comparable functions, however, ought not to lead to new, unknown risks resulting from the extensive use of nanomaterials.
An important step in this context is to adapt the substance-based provisions in the EU REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) regulation and to consider nanomaterials separately in that regulation. In the past, many nanomaterials have fallen through the cracks and not been subject to examination under REACH due to their small quantity and production volume. Furthermore, there is a lack of nano-specific analysis and test methodologies. In terms of practical solutions for risk assessment and management, it will be necessary for the future to divide the large number of different nanomaterials into a manageable number of risk categories.
“Examination and assessment of consequences for industry, consumers, human health and the environment of possible options for changing the REACH requirements for nanomaterials” Oeko-Institut’s final report (2013)