Nanotechnology in the focus of consumer health protection
In which foods and products are nanoparticles used? In what ways do consumers come into contact with nanoparticles? Does this lead to health risks? How can they be assessed? What information do consumers need about nanotechnologies? At the sixth BfR Consumer Protection Forum at the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) in Berlin the list of questions to be addressed was long. Around 200 participants from political circles, science, industry, public institutions and non-governmental organisations discussed possible answers from the angle of "Nanotechnology in the focus of consumer health protection". The participants all agreed that extensive research is required. There was also an urgent need for a uniform definition of nanotechnology. However, even with a definition of this kind it would not be possible to undertake generally valid risk assessment. "The assessment of potential health risks from nanoparticles or nanomaterials is only possible at the present time in individual cases", said BfR President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel.
As confirmed by BfR surveys, consumers expect nanotechnologies to simplify their daily lives. They mostly think of cleaning products, impregnating agents and functional textiles. By contrast, they are more sceptical about nanoparticles in food. According to comments from the food industry at the BfR Forum, no nanoparticles have been used in food up to now in Germany. In future, nanotechnology could be used in “intelligent” food packaging to indicate how long a food has been packaged and whether the prescribed temperature was exceeded during storage. Whether and, if so, on what scale nanoparticles can migrate from packaging of this kind to food and what then happens to these particles during recycling has not yet been fully elucidated. To ensure that the manufacturers of this type of packaging comply with their obligation to place safe products on the market, research gaps will have to be closed.
In comparison, there has been substantial research on the effect of nanoscale substances on the human skin. The minute particles are not able to penetrate healthy skin - one reason why their use in UV filters in sunscreens is permitted. By contrast, not enough data are available on the effect of nanoparticles in the gastrointestinal tract. We do not know whether nanoparticles migrate from there to blood and other organs, and could then trigger effects. We do know that nanoparticles can reach deep parts of the lungs via the respiratory tract. To establish the effect they have there, research is needed on each individual substance.
In any case, it is not possible to undertake scientific risk assessment of all nanotechnologies. The structures and materials in which they are used are too diverse. For example nanoparticles processed in materials or substance mixtures may be stored with other molecules. This would mean that nanoscale particles would not reach the consumer.
Food and product control authorities also face major challenges in conjunction with the presence of nanoparticles in consumer products: standardised test methods, the corresponding equipment and staff to operate it are needed in order to be able to monitor product safety.
The participants welcomed initiatives like the BfR Consumer Conference on Nanotechnology. They all agreed that the public at large should be informed about the opportunities and risks of nanotechnology so that consumers can take informed purchasing decisions. Against this backdrop, a uniform definition is important which stipulates what is exactly meant by nanotechnology.