How can the safety of nanomaterials be ensured?

Nanomaterials are already used in numerous everyday products. The range covers everything from nanoparticles for sun protection to nanoclays for making drinking bottles gas-proof. As varied as the materials created by nanotechnology as diverse are the issues raised regarding the assessment of their effects on health and the environment, issues that must be confronted by all those involved in the regulation of these materials. "This risk assessment challenge can only be overcome in cooperation with partners from other fields of science", says BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "Our cooperation with the Fraunhofer Society is a good example of this: both the BfR and the Fraunhofer Society are working on aspects of chemical and consumer safety. Whereas the focus of the BfR is on the health assessment of chemicals, products, food and feed, the institutes of the Fraunhofer Society adopt an application-oriented perspective, for example the viewpoints of manufacturing technology and ecology." Both institutions participate in the EU research project NANoREG which is concerned with the development of methods for the regulatory testing of nanomaterials. The "First Joint Symposium on Nanotechnology" of the BfR and the Fraunhofer alliances Food Chain Management and Nanotechnology held from 5 to 6 March 2015 presents, among other things, insights gained in the course of this project. In the run-up to this event, on 3 and 4 March, experts and participants will exchange ideas on the safety and risk assessment of nanomaterials on the occasion of the "1st Advanced Training Event on Nanotechnology for Risk Assessors",  organised by the BfR Academy. The event is the first in Europe that specifically addresses risk assessors. In doing so, it closes a gap which has been pointed out by the competent authorities in Europe for some time.

According to the current state of scientific knowledge inhalation is the most worrisome kind of exposure towards nanomaterials for humans. At the 1st Joint Symposium on Nanotechnology, recent results of inhalation toxicology and biokinetics of nanomaterials are presented. Using nano-cerium dioxide as an exemplary substance, particle accumulation in the lungs, liver, kidneys and other organs is investigated. In this context it is also explored whether inhaled nanoparticles can pass the air-blood barrier and relocate via the blood to other organs, where they may accumulate.

One key question of nanotoxicology is, whether nano-sized particles are specially enabled to pass barriers in the body. To cast light on this question, imaging procedures such as time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry are currently developed further for the analysis of biological media. This allows for the imaging of interactions between particles and biomolecules as well as of particle distribution. Further development of detection methods is also being discussed, for example regarding the “Single Particle (SP)-ICP-MS”, a mass spectrometric method that displays nanoparticles in the form of individual signals. Methods such as SP-ICP-MS are important to clarify whether there is a relevant exposure of humans to nanomaterials through nanocomposites as e.g. food contact materials made of plastic or ceramics as well as cosmetic products.

At the “1st Advanced Training Event on Nanotechnology for Risk Assessors” organised by the BfR Academy, participants from different European countries including many employees from regulatory and supervisory authorities are concerned with current practical questions of safety and risk assessment of nanomaterials. The starting point is the fact that nanomaterials already used today such as nano silver and titanium dioxide are produced in numerous forms (e.g. different sizes, surface coatings). This is resulting in a great variety of materials for which a risk assessment must be assured.

In certain areas, there is already a regulation for nanomaterials in place. Reliable methods are urgently needed by the supervisory authorities in order to check compliance with existing legal requirements. Within the frame of the European chemical assessment programme REACH, nanomaterials are recorded with some separate specifications. They are to be characterised with regard to their physicochemical properties. In addition, nanomaterials in their different versions must be investigated in terms of their toxicological properties. Currently there are no specific OECD guidelines available for the testing of nanomaterials. The current status of method development in different working areas will be presented to the participants. Beside methods for physicochemical and toxicity testing, exposure and risk assessment will be discussed. The questions are which of the existing methods is suitable for what, where are the limits of each method, where there are still gaps and how they can be closed in the particular working areas of chemical assessment, cosmetic products and food contact materials.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL). It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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