Nanomaterials, too many grey areas, according to ANSES


Nanomaterials put health at risk. Therefore, there is an urgent need for further research and consideration of their exclusion when not essential. The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Safety (ANSES) revives the highly topical issue of nanoparticles.

Nanomaterials, between utility and health

Aurélie Niaudet, who is in charge of ANSES to assess the risks associated with physical agents, explains the challenges of assessing nanomaterials as follows. ‘We need to be pragmatic about the issue of nanomaterials: we need to better understand exposure, identify their uses, and ask questions about their utility in view of health risks.’ (1)

Small size gives materials new properties such as strength, conductivity and the ability to carry other substances. These features are highly sought after and increasingly exploited. But it is now known that these ‘precious’ materials can also harm humans and the environment.

Beyond physiological barriers

In fact, nanomaterials are able to cross physiological barriers such as the skin and respiratory tract, and accumulate in various organs. Some nanoparticles also exhibit specific types of toxicity. (2)

A second of their shape and characteristics, nanomaterials interact with living organisms in different ways. A wide variety of parameters can influence their toxicity: their chemical nature-for example, silica, titanium, or silver-but also their size, shape, surface, and the characteristics of any coating they may have‘, Aurélie Niaudet explains.

What we don’t know about nanomaterials

Assessing the risks associated with nanomaterials involves three steps: agreeing on criteria to define them, describing the main types of exposure, and understanding their behavior and effects.

Today, in fact, there is still no unambiguous definition of nanomaterials. Apart from their size, few physicochemical parameters are taken into account in the definition currently proposed by the European Commission.

When in doubt, better to prevent

According to ANSES, there are still many gray areas regarding population exposure to nanomaterials and potential health and environmental impacts. (3)

In addition to strengthening the regulatory framework, there is an urgent need to limit public and environmental exposure on a precautionary basis by choosing safe products that are equally effective but free of nanomaterials. Especially when their use is not really necessary.

France on the front line

Nanomaterials research has been going on for years at ANSES. Pressure on European institutions from the French and Dutch agencies was confirmed in the recent EFSA opinion on titanium dioxide, which is also used as a food coloring.

Titanium dioxide, however, is not the only substance of concern. ANSES also delved into the profile of nano-silver, used for its antibacterial properties. He has developed new methods for evaluating nanomaterials and published a review of the presence of engineered nanomaterials in food.

The R-Nano database and research funding

Since 2013, the French agency has also been running the ‘R-Nano’ registry. This is a mandatory declaration scheme to improve the traceability of nanoscale substances produced, imported and distributed in France. A tool, however, weakened by the poor quality of the data transmitted, ANSES complained, calling on businesses and ministries to cooperate.

Finally, to improve knowledge of nanomaterials, research projects on the environmental effects and fate of nanomaterials, as well as monitoring of population exposure, are also funded through the National Environmental and Occupational Health Research Program (NRP EST), coordinated by ANSES. Meanwhile, in France, the collection of signatures to exclude all nanomaterials from food continues.

Marta Strinati


(1) See Aurélie Niaudet. On the issue of nanomaterials, we have to questions about their utility in view of the health risks. ANSES https://www.anses%C3%

(2) SEE

(3) SEE

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Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".