Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology has multiple applications. However, there is still much uncertainty about the potential risks related to this new technology. To help resolve these uncertainties, RIVM conducts research and provides policy advice to various Dutch ministries.

The concept of nanotechnology

Nanotechnology deals with materials on the scale of nanometres (1 nanometre equals 1 millionth of a millimetre). Nanotechnology enables the handling of material on a molecular level, allowing alteration of the properties of this material. The nanoparticles thus created exhibit different characteristics than larger particles, which alters their behaviour. In this way, a new generation of technological applications is formed, opening up new possibilities in a wide range of fields, varying from health care and food to the environment and agriculture.

Applications of nanotechnology

There are many areas in which nanotechnology is already applied, such as in health care (medicines and medical aids), ICT (computer chips), consumer products (cosmetics and textiles), food (additives and packaging), the environment (water treatment and soil sanitation) and agriculture (artificial fertiliser and plant protection products).

Examples of the use of nanotechnology are titanium dioxide in sunscreen lotion, cerium oxide nanoparticles in diesel fuel to improve combustion (fewer emissions of particulate matter) and anti-bacterial applications of silver nanoparticles in clothing, medical equipment and paints.

Reasons for applying nanotechnology

With the use of nanotechnology materials can be supplied with new properties, such as (even) smaller computer chips, stronger synthetics, anti-bacterial coatings, and water-resistant textiles. A distinction is made between the use of nanoparticles in various applications (nanotechnology as a product) and their use in the production process (nanotechnology as a process). Nanoparticles may have different properties and may behave differently from larger particles of the same chemical composition.
Regarding potential health risks, RIVM focuses particularly on free (not product-bound), non-degradable and non-soluble nanoparticles.

Nanoparticles

Nanoparticles are particles that are smaller than 100 nanometres in one or more dimensions (for the definition of a nanomaterial, see policy and legislation). Nanotechnology only relates to particles that are intentionally produced for their particular properties.
The most commonly used chemical substances in nano-form are:

  • Fullerenes
  • Single-walled or multi-walled nanotubes
  • Silver (Ag)
  • Gold (Au)
  • Iron (Fe)
  • Titanium dioxide (TiO2)
  • Aluminium oxide (Al3O2)
  • Cerium oxide (CeO2)
  • Zinc oxide (ZnO)
  • Silicon dioxide (SiO2)

In addition to intentionally produced nanoparticles, similarly sized particles are already present in the environment. Examples of such particles are volcanic ash and by-products from human activities, such as exhaust emissions from diesel and other engines and smoke from welding. These are not included in the realm of nanotechnology, but are categorised under particulate matter in indoor or outdoor air. 

Potential problems

In addition to the economic, environmental and health benefits of nanotechnology, there are also safety concerns with respect to people and the environment. These concerns mostly relate to the possible risks of free non-degradable engineered nanomaterials, as it is unclear if and to which extent people and the environment are exposed to such particles. Moreover, if exposure would occur, the behaviour of such particles is largely unknown. Little is also known about the influence of nano-scale particle sizes on toxicity. This means that it is difficult to make a reliable risk estimation for particles of the same material but of different sizes. Health risks only become an issue following actual exposure, regardless of any theoretical danger posed by a particular nanomaterial.

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