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Are nanomaterials safe to use?

From NILU’s annual report 2014: Nanomaterials are everywhere around us. You find nanomaterials in a broad range of materials from sport clothes, cosmetics, toothpaste, painting, building materials and electronics to pharmaceuticals. Moreover, as rapid progress within nanotechnology continues, more products enter the market.

Elise Rundén Pran, Senior Scientist, NILU. 

The unique properties of nanomaterials, and what make these products useful, are linked to the nanoscale. One nanometer is one billionth of a metre – and nanoparticles are defined as particles between 1 and 100 nanometres in size.

Size really matters

It is the nanosize that enables the particles to cross barriers in the body (e.g. the blood brain barrier protecting the brain), and this feature has revolutionized nanomedicine for diagnostics and treatment.

Further, nanomaterials can be designed, combined and manipulated to achieve the desired properties, e.g., by surface coating and change of size. But how can we be sure that nanomaterials only do what we desire them to do? Could nanomaterials also have unintentional effects that could be hazardous to humans or environment?

Testing toxicity

To prevent hazardous effects on humans or the environment, it is essential to test the potential toxicity of the nanomaterials. However, there is a knowledge gap between nanotechnology and nanotoxicology.

The Health Effects Laboratory at NILU has great expertise in the field of nanotoxicology, and applies a battery of in vitro tests (testing in cell cultures in dishes instead of in animals (in vivo)) adapted for toxicity testing of nanoparticles. This is in accordance with the Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) to “reduce, refine and replace” for minimizing the use of animals in research.

Standard tests generally have to be modified and validated to ensure the nanoparticles do not interfere with the test assay, as the small size gives a large surface and thus a very high reactivity. What makes this field so interesting, but also so challenging, is that toxicity is highly dependent upon both the size of the nanoparticles as well as the surface coating.

To avoid completing a development process for a new nanomaterial with desired features and finding out in the end that it is highly toxic, development and toxicity testing should in general be performed in parallel. This “safe-by-design” approach will save both time and cost.

Narrowing the knowledge gap

The Health Effects Laboratory continues to explore the field of nanotoxicology further, to contribute to narrowing the knowledge gap and ensure nanosafety – the safe use of nanomaterials.

Validation and standardization of test methods is very important, and we are involved in many international and national projects within this area. Especially for this work, it is of great advantage that the Health Effects Laboratory is certified by the Norwegian Accreditation body according to the OECD´s principles  for good laboratory practice (GLP) – currently as the only GLP certified laboratory for in vitro human toxicity testing in Norway.

The Health Effects Laboratory is part of NILU’s Environmental Chemistry Department

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