Over the past decade, there has been an increased influx of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) into consumer products. Nanomaterials are substances which are less than 100 nanometres in size (a nanometre is one billionth of a metre). Although natural nanomaterials exist, engineered nanomaterials are being designed with very specific properties and the impacts to humans and ecosystem health are largely unknown.
ENMs often have chemical, biological and physical properties that larger particles don’t typically have, allowing them to be used in thousands of products such as paints, fabrics, cosmetics, sunscreens, electronics and construction materials. In fact, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has listed more than 1,600 consumer products identified as containing ENMs.
With the normal production, use, and disposal of these products, it is very likely that many ENMs will end up in the environment. For instance, nanoscaled titanium dioxide used in some sunscreens will inevitably be washed off during swimming in a natural body of water or flushed away in wastewater after showering. ENMs contained in clothes and food packaging may be rinsed off during washing, and it is unclear whether current wastewater treatment systems can filter them out before releasing water back into the environment.
Research suggests that some ENMs may adversely affect ‘ecosystem receptors’, such as microbes which support critical ecosystem services. Other research has also shown the potential for some ENMs, including those used to clean up contaminated soil and water, to be toxic to some organisms. More work is needed to find out what impacts these materials could have on biodiversity particularly with the challenges ecosystems already face from climate change, habitat destruction and pollution.
A critical step in better understanding the impacts of ENMs on the environment is to establish common terminology and a minimum set of information requirements to be used when testing or establishing regulations. So far, there has been no consensus on which characteristics or parameters should be studied by researchers or other stakeholder groups including industry and regulatory agencies.
The Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) and the Versailles Project on Advanced Materials and Standards (VAMAS) held a meeting recently at RTI International headquarters in the US to work on the Uniform Description System for Materials on the Nanoscale. The system was discussed among key experts in the field of nanotechnology and nanomaterial standards including database experts from the Nanomaterials Registry.
In the coming months, members of the CODATA-VAMAS working group will finalize this description system so that interested groups can obtain useful data on the physical or chemical properties of a range of ENMs. Meanwhile, international research teams continue their investigations can then take place on the potential impacts of these materials on health and the environment and whether regulation is needed.
Developing a minimum set of information requirements for ENMs is important to help ensure that emerging technologies are developed in the most sustainable and responsible manner to help safeguard ecosystems and biodiversity as well as our health.