Nanomaterial Assessment: Case by Case

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a nanomaterial as “an ingredient that contains particles that have been intentionally produced to have at least one dimension that measures between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers.” Nanomaterials seem bursting with potention for technological breakthroughs. Alongside, safety concerns have been bursting forth, too.

The European Commission (EC) and the EPA both say that there is no cause for concern about nanomaterial safety at this stage. At issue seems to be that there is a shortage of technologies to reach into the nano world to test the nanomaterials for safety and health & environmental hazards.

It’s all too new, too small and too tricky.

So in fact, based on the evidence, there is “no real cause for concern” around nanomaterial safety. But obviously there’s “no significant safety testing” being done to establish whether there’s cause for concern or not.  So, use your nanostuff with caution, and that includes everything from lip balm, paint and paper to polymers.

Meanwhile, policy makers have to contend with how to regulate nanomaterials. For instance, nanomaterials under REACH have thus far been covered by the term “substance.”  But the EC is realizing a policy review is in order.

Regulating nanomaterials: under review  Announced October 3, 2012, the European Commission (EC) is initiating a regulatory review for nanomaterials. Focus is on a systematic analysis of all relevant EU legislation to determine three key points:

  1. Whether current legislation is appropriate to ensure the safe use of nanomaterials
  2. Whether and what regulatory gaps need to be filled
  3. How this can be done without jeopardizing their contribution to innovation, growth and job creation for the European economy

The total annual quantity of nanomaterials on the global market is around 11 million tonnes (just over 12 million US tons), with a market value of roughly 20 billion euros (which equals $20.29 billion US dollars at this writing).

“Traditional” high volume nanomaterials  Contrary to what is often implied in public debate, more than 99.9% of all nanomaterials on the market are produced in quantities above 1 tonne per year (in terms of production volumes and sales). Many of the highest volume nanomaterials on the market are widespread in application and have been on the markets for decades, and longer.

Examples of such “traditional” high volume nanomaterials include carbon black (a filler in tyres, rubber and polymer materials) and synthetic amorphous silica: used in a wide variety of applications, including as a filler in tyres and polymers, to provide anti-slip properties in paper, in paints and adhesives, in the food industry as a widely used anti-coagulant in food powders, as an aid to clear beer, wine, and fruit juices, in tooth paste, in the construction industry as an insulation material. [Source: EC documentation]

Nanomaterials attracting attention  Examples of nanomaterials oft-discussed include: nano-titanium dioxide, nano-zinc oxide, fullerenes, carbon nanotubes and nanosilver. Those materials are marketed in much smaller quantities than the traditional nanomaterials. Many of those have been developed more recently and the use of some of those materials is quickly increasing, although not necessarily at the pace of some earlier projections.

An aside: the Swedish Karolinska Institute conducted a study in which various nanoparticles were introduced to human lung epithelial cells. The results, released in 2008 and referenced by Wikipedia, showed that:

  1. Iron oxide nanoparticles caused little DNA damage and were non-toxic
  2. Zinc oxide nanoparticles were slightly worse
  3. Titanium dioxide caused only DNA damage
  4. Carbon nanotubes caused DNA damage at low levels
  5. Copper oxide was found to be the worst offender, and was the only nanomaterial identified by the researchers as a clear health risk

Nano-titanium dioxide and nano-zinc dioxide can be used as a UV-filter in sunscreens (currently subject to an evaluation by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety and US FDA), in paints and varnishes and in self-cleaning surfaces in the construction industry.

Carbon nanotubes are mainly used to impart electrical conductivity to plastic materials, e.g. in disk drive components or automotive plastic fuel lines and fenders. Other uses include polymer additives, paints and coatings, fuel cells, electrodes, electrolytes and membranes in batteries, especially lithium batteries.

Fullerenes are very often confused with carbon nanotubes and are used in high market applications requiring particular strength such as tennis rackets and golf balls, but also in cosmetics, fuel and solar cells. However due to their high cost, their market is rather limited.

Nanosilver can be used as a disinfectant and anti-odour substance in textiles. However, its use seems relatively limited (estimated at roughly 20 tonnes worldwide).

More information:

  1. EC recommended definition of nanomaterials can be found here:
  2. EC press release on the subject:
  3. EPA definition:  “an ingredient that contains particles that have been intentionally produced to have at least one dimension that measures between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers.”
  4. Go deeper into nano: Chemicals, REACH, CLP and nanomaterials:
  5. Glimmers of nanotechnology policy in the US
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About Kal

Kal Kawar, CIH, PE, has a bachelor's in chemical engineering and a master's in industrial hygiene. His professional experience includes serving as staff industrial hygienist for IBM's New York semiconductor manufacturing facility, and as industrial hygienist for IBM’s US headquarters. Now executive vice president of Actio, Kal taps more than 20 years' worth of chemical engineering, industrial hygiene, and environmental engineering experience. His far-reaching expertise with global regulatory challenges created by EPA, TSCA, REACH, RoHS, WEEE – and hundreds of others – aid in developing Actio software solutions for MSDS management, raw material disclosure compliance, and product stewardship in a supply chain.