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JRC contributes to risk assessment of selected engineered nanomaterials to human health and the environment. Lessons learned from four case studies

Human health risks may arise from chronic occupational inhalation exposure to nanoparticles, and for the environment from metal and metal oxide nanomaterials. More data is however needed before drawing definitive conclusions on the risks from exposure to nanomaterials.

Scientists from the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection (IHCP) of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) performed basic risk assessments for four types of nanomaterials: fullerenes, carbon nanotubes, nano-silver and metal-oxides (nano-titanium dioxide and nano-zinc oxide) following the methodology described in the REACH guidance.

The assessments were based on a comprehensive and critical scientific review[1] of the health and environmental safety concerns of these specific nanomaterials (ENRHES Final Report).

The results of the studies show that the main risk for human health may arise from chronic occupational inhalation exposure, especially during activities of high particle release and uncontrolled exposure. With regard to consumers, spray applications of nanomaterials may be of concern. The main risk for the environment (especially for algae and daphnia) is expected from metal and metal oxide nanomaterials, due to exposure to both particles and ions.

Publicly available hazard and exposure data for the investigated nanomaterials are however limited and there are high uncertainties in any conclusion on a possible risk. Furthermore, since the EU legislative framework on chemicals - REACH – and the associated guidance documents do not take into consideration any specific behaviour of substances in the nanoform, further work is required in the generation of data and the development of methodologies.

From the results of the ENRHES project and follow up investigations, JRC-IHCP scientists, together with colleagues from Edinburgh University and the Institute of Occupational Medicine, have published a number of papers (listed below) on human health and environmental hazards and safety.

Aschberger K, Micheletti C, Sokull-Klüttgen B, Christensen FM, 2011. Analysis of currently available data for characterising the risk of engineered nanomaterials to the environment and human Health – Lessons learned from four case studies. Environment International (in press) - doi:10.1016/j.envint.2011.02.005

Aschberger K, Johnston HJ, Stone V, Aitken RJ, Tran CL, Hankin SM, Peters SAK, Christensen FM, 2010. Review of carbon nanotubes toxicity and exposure – assessment of the feasibility and challenges for human health risk assessment based on open literature. Crit Rev Toxicol; 40(9) 759-790.
doi:10.3109/10408444.2010.506638

Christensen FM, Johnston HJ, Stone V, Aitken RJ, Hankin S, Peters S, Aschberger K, 2010. Nano–silver - feasibility and challenges for human health risk assessment based on open literature. Nanotoxicology 4(3): 284–295 doi:10.3109/17435391003690549

Aschberger K, Johnston HJ, Stone V, Aitken RJ, Tran CL, Hankin SM, Peters SAK, Christensen FM, 2010. Review of fullerene toxicity and exposure – a human health risk assessment appraisal based on open literature. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol 58(3):455-473.
doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2010.08.017

Christensen FM, Johnston HJ, Stone V, Aitken RJ, Hankin S, Peters S, Aschberger K 2010. Nano titanium–dioxide - feasibility and challenges for human health risk assessment based on open literature. Nanotoxicology, Early online.
doi: 10.3109/17435390.2010.504899.

Johnston HJ, Hutchison GR, Christensen FM, Aschberger K, Stone V, 2010. The biological mechanisms and physicochemical characteristics responsible for driving fullerene toxicity. Toxicol Sci 114(2): 162-182.
doi:10.1093/toxsci/kfp265

Johnston HJ, Hutchison GR, Christensen FM, Peters S, Hankin S, Aschberger K, Stone V, 2009. A critical review of the biological mechanisms underlying the in vivo and in vitro toxicity of carbon nanotubes; the contribution of physicochemical characteristics. Nanotoxicology 4(2): 207-246. doi:10.3109/17435390903569639

Johnston HJ, Hutchison GR, Christensen FM, Peters S, Hankin S, Stone V, 2009. Identification of the mechanisms that drive the toxicity of TiO2 particulates; the contribution of physicochemical characteristics. Part Fibre Toxicol 6:33.
doi: 10.1186/1743-8977-6-33.

Johnston HJ, Hutchison GR, Christensen FM, Peters S, Hankin S, Stone V, 2010. A review of the in vivo and in vitro toxicity of silver and gold particulates: particle attributes and biological mechanisms responsible for the observed toxicity. Crit Rev Toxicol. 40(4): 328-46. doi:10.3109/10408440903453074


[1] Performed within the FP-7 project: ENRHES (Engineered Nanoparticles: Review of Health and Environmental Safety), finalised in October 2009.

Photo: Field emission scanning electron microscope coupled with a focused Ion beam for Nanomaterial characterisation and cell imaging. Copyright © European Union 2010

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