Benefits and risks
Around the world, scientists are diligently examining risks to human health and to the environment which could potentially be associated with new nanotechnologies. As with any major new technology, this kind of research is simply a must. It is about social responsibility and – because it proactively addresses issues which could potentially be damaging in the future – it is good business.
To the extent that any such risks might potentially exist, there is a key distinction to be made: In those product applications where nanoparticles or other nanoelements are bound into the structures of materials or components, users of the products will generally not come into direct contact with them, thus largely obviating any concerns as to human health. Nanoelectronics and nano-optics are two areas of applied nanotechnology where this is characteristically the case – and thus where these risks may be regarded as remote.
In contrast, where nanoparticles find application in new medical treatments, then patient benefits and side effects must – as with any new drug or treatment – be carefully studied and weighed against each other. Without this kind of rigorous scientific study of risks, involving controlled clinical studies, these new treatments would never receive the required regulatory approval.
It certainly is legitimate to ask whether free nanoparticles, i.e. which are not bound into a material or structure, could have undesired health effects, such as through inhalation. It should be recognized, however, that nanoparticles are not just a modern industrial creation but, in fact, occur naturally and thus have always been present in our environment. In industrial production environments, safety precautions – such as those which have long been standard practice in the chemical industry – are thus a sensible way to ensure protection.
A great deal of research has been – and is still being – conducted in both industry and academia about the absorption of nanoparticles into the body and any long-term issues which this could present. Within the European Union, for example, the 7th Framework Programme for Research (FP7) currently includes nine projects which specifically address the question of whether nanotechnology could present risks to health or the environment. And this research, continued from the 6th Framework Programme from 2002 to 2006, has been going on for quite some time. Within Germany, long renowned for both its scientists and its commitment to environmental protection, the Research Ministry provided some EUR 7.6 million in funding between 2006 and 2009 just for three projects to investigate the safety of synthetic nanomaterials, with another EUR 4.1 million coming from German companies. And recently, the German government has launched several new programs to exhaustively study the potential impact of nanotechnology on the environment (NanoNature) and human health (NanoCare).