Nanotechnology may well be one of the most talked about industries of recent years. With a projected value of $ 173.95 billion globally by 2025, this rapidly evolving sector is already delivering significant sustainability, health, and welfare benefits to society.
Nanomaterials, as the name suggests, are very small, less than a millionth of a meter in size. They have unique physical and chemical characteristics that give them improved properties, such as reactivity, resistance, electrical characteristics and functionality. These benefits have resulted in the incorporation of nanomaterials into a wide range of consumer products. The automotive, computing, electronics, cosmetics, sports and health industries benefit from the innovations of nanotechnology. New fields have also emerged, such as nanomedicine, which aims to dramatically improve our future ability to treat diseases.
But as exciting as that may seem, as with any innovation, we must ensure that human health and environmental impacts are taken into account. And this is not a simple task. Although standard risk assessments are available for a wide range of things – such as chemical compounds – nanomaterials have unique properties, so they can not be assessed in exactly the same way.
Environmental and human health
Nanomaterials are already entering our environment, albeit at low levels. They are being found in waste water for products like toothpaste, sunscreen and when items like nano-silver socks (which avoid stinky feet) are washed away. Short-term environmental safety studies have also found that many nanomaterials absorb (form a thin film) on the surface of organisms – such as algae and fleas of water – epidermis. The materials are also distributed in both intestinal systems and along the bodies of small creatures.
It is vitally important that we can address the potential adverse impacts of nanomaterials before widespread environmental dispersion occurs. Currently, the long-term effects of exposure to nanomaterials on ecosystems are poorly understood. We also do not know the impact of nanomaterials exposure on the food chain. They could affect feed rates, as well as the behavior and survival of different species, for example.
We also do not know enough about how nanomaterials can affect humans when exposed in small doses and for long periods. The most important routes of exposure to humans are the lungs, intestines and skin. Nanomaterials are being incorporated into food products and packaging, and can be inhaled or swallowed by workers during manufacturing as well. Tests have shown that once nanomaterials enter the body, they get stuck in the liver, but we do not know what the risk is for the long term.
The current non-animal safety standard tests for lung, intestinal and cutaneous exposure are very simplistic. For example, to determine the biological impact of inhaled nanomaterials, scientists develop a single pulmonary cell system in the laboratory and expose it to nanomaterials suspended in liquid. But there are more than 40 different types of cells in the human lung. These types of tests can not accurately predict the potential damage associated with exposure to nanomaterials. Neither accurately imitate the complexity of the human body or the way we come across nanomaterials.
The next generation
The world has already experienced the problems that can arise with new innovations. Given the world's experiences with asbestos (which, although it was used thousands of years ago, was only discovered as a source of disease in the 1900s), the controversial development of genetically modified foods and the highly topical microplastic crisis is imperative that Advances in nanotechnology do not result in similar health crises.
Our research team is now working to improve nanotechnology testing through the PATROLS project, funded by Horizon 2020. Bringing together leading international experts in nanosecurity, ecotoxicology, tissue engineering and computer modeling from around the world, our goal is to develop the best practices and address the current testing limitations.
We are already adopting leading edge science to develop advanced models of lung, intestine and liver tissues for safety assessment of nanomaterials. We are working on new safety assessment methods for test systems and environmentally relevant organisms (including algae, aquatic aphids and zebrafish), which have been selected according to their position in the food chain. These non-animal tests aim to reduce reliance on animal testing, while promoting the responsible development of the nanotechnology industry.
In addition, we are working to create a way to predict the safety of human and environmental nanomaterials based on computational models. This will allow the screening of new nanomaterials using a computer database as an initial safety check before further testing is performed.
By improving non-animal testing for nanotechnology, we can help protect consumers, workers and the environment from any health or safety hazards they may cause. Nanotechnology has already shown that it can improve our lives and, with a better understanding of its safety, we can take more advantage of the benefits that this new technology offers.