REconciling sCience, Innovation and Precaution through the Engagement of Stakeholders
Nanotechnology is an important area of research and technology development. The ITA analyses the regulation of nanotechnologies, and identifies potential health and environmental risks.
Nanomaterials can be found in many household objects, be it in tennis rackets, waterproofing sprays or sunscreens. They offer many advantages, such as the conservation of resources through lower material consumption or the improvement of product properties such as hardness, abrasion resistance and processability. One good example is plastic food packaging containing nanomaterials: food can be stored and stays fresh longer. However, the impact of nanomaterials on our health and the environment is not yet fully researched.
With so many areas of application, one cannot speak of "nanotechnology" as if it were one technology with uniform benefits and risks. In reality, there is a multitude of different processes, techniques and methods that are relevant for different branches of the economy. "Nanotechnologies" is therefore a collective term for those technologies that make use of the special properties of atoms and molecules in the incredibly small nanometer range - one nanometer corresponds to one billionth of a meter.
How safe is it?
For consumer protection, nanomaterials are subject to a number of regulations. In the EU, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) performs a safety assessment before approval. The ITA places safety aspects at the top of its research work:
Since 2008, the ITA’s NanoTrust-project-team has been analysing the latest findings on potential health and environmental risks and passing them on to policy makers. Currently, this also involves safety and risk research of so-called "Advanced Materials". NanoTrust not only provides accompanying research on the regulation of nanotechnologies – for example regarding the complex standardization of nanomaterials – the dissemination of research results also enables critical reflection on national and international regulatory activities.
In its SafeNanoKap project, the ITA looked at the applicability of the Safe-by-Design (SbD) approach for a specific nano-product: the coffee capsule. The aim of SbD is to integrate safety aspects at an early stage in the design process of nanomaterials in order to point out challenges or difficulties. Companies could use it to address safety-relevant issues early on in the development of new materials and products. At present, however, SbD is a voluntary concept that can be implemented in addition to the EU’s chemicals legislation.
What is nano doing in the waste stream? The NanoMia project has modelled the discharge of nanoparticles from six different products in specific material and waste streams in order to better understand possible effects and to identify gaps in knowledge about their fate in the environment.
And what do the people want?
New materials and new products are relevant for industry, politics, research and many other stakeholders. But what applications do citizens want and need? In the GoNano project, citizens and experts jointly develop proposals in the areas of health, nutrition and energy. The goal is to demonstrate how citizens can contribute to research and development processes in the field of nanotechnologies in order to better align emerging products and business concepts with their expectations and concerns.