Nanoparticles – attitudes and potential hazards


The aim of the Mistra Environmental Nanosafety program is to build knowledge to promote responsible use of nanotechnology in a sustainable society. The research focus is on assessing the environmental risks of nanomaterials, which properties of nanomaterials that are key to address and be avoided, and how we can protect the environment from unacceptable nanomaterial emissions in the future. Thus the program addresses risk assessment on a physical and biological level, as well as the perception of risk amongst stakeholders and society at large. Together both are needed to update risk regulation policies for nanomaterials.


Mistra Environmental Nanosafety is an interdisciplinary research program, involving engineers and natural, medical and social scientists. In the social science part of the research program, the focus is on how Swedish stakeholders that work with nanomaterials in society, perceive their risks and advantages. We have also investigated their views on legislation of nanotechnology.

What factors affect the Swedish stakeholders’ judgement in these issues? Are the experts more positive to legislation if they perceive a larger risk? Professor Åsa Boholm and Associate researcher Simon Larsson at Gothenburg Research Institute sent out a questionnaire to 237 Swedish experts in companies working with nanotechnology, trade associations, research institutes, and government authorities. Also experts from NGOs (for example environmental organizations) answered the questionnaire. The questions concerned the perceived risk, perceived benefits, risk regulation and risk management of nanotechnology, nanomaterials and nanoparticles.

– Our research creates a better understanding of how different actors in society perceive and work with these issues, which is a component in assuring a safe management, says Simon Larsson.

The results, published in Gothenburg Research Report GRI-rapport 2017:2 “Attitudes towards nanomaterials and nanotechnology among Swedish expert stakeholders: Risk, benefit, and regulation”, show that nanomaterial and nanotechnology engage a variety of Swedish stakeholders in many different ways. The respondents, who had self-assessed that nanomaterials and nanotechnology were relevant in each of their organizations, included individuals working with research, risk assessment, product development as well as law.

The responses reveal that experts in NGOs perceived a higher risk and were more positive to regulations than their colleagues in trade associations and companies. Answers from experts working in government authorities did not differ significantly from the experts affiliated with companies. Generally, all respondents emphasized the advantages rather than the risks of nanotechnology and nanomaterials, but that this varied slightly depending on application area. For example, respondents were significantly more positive to the use of nanotechnology in electronic devices compared to areas where nanoparticles come closer to the body, such as cosmetics or food. Generally, the experts support, regulation of nanomaterials and nanotechnology. They are relatively negative to taxes and self-regulation as legislature, and relatively positive to selective prohibitions.

The issue of how nanotechnology risks are addressed and how it is regulated at different levels is not just a question of material toxicity, exposure and long-term effects in the ecosystem. It is also the issue that many actors in society deal with in different ways. The survey has created an understanding of how different players make balances between risk and benefit, how it is reflected in their view of regulation, and how different players might differ when making these assessments.

During the autumn 2017, Simon Larsson and Åsa Boholm embarked on another questionnaire. They constructed and submitted four questions for the SOM Institute’s annual questionnaire which was sent to 3400 Swedish citizens. The questions addressed knowledge of and attitudes towards nanotechnology in the general public. The responses can be coupled to data on a series of individual background variables, such as income, gender, political affiliation and other factors. This allows both a general overview of the Swedish population’s attitudes to nanotechnology, as well as the possibility to see which background factors, if any, are correlated with specific responses. This research on public perceptions will create a better understanding of the extent to which consumers are prepared to accept new technologies in consumer products, and in which areas they are more likely to be positive about nano applications. At the moment, the results have been obtained and are being evaluated.

The responses to both questionnaires provide important information on the positioning of the various key stakeholders as well as general public regarding the questions of risk management, regulation and acceptance of nanotechnology. Knowledge of the attitudes of stakeholders and the general public provides a necessary back drop upon which we can work to formulate a new approach to risk management and regulation in phase 2 of the research program.


One goal of the research program is to contribute to an integrated development of generic methods and models, validated by experimental findings to underpin risk assessments, particle- and material flow analyses and life-cycle assessments of nanotechnology. These assessments need to be understandable and acceptable for societal actors facing the challenge to evaluate potential hazards to likewise potential benefits. So the natural science and technology studies are linked to the social science studies by the risk assessment and societal flow studies performed.

The image below demonstrates our integrated approach to studying the distribution and hazard assessment of nanoparticles in fresh water environments, including, in magnifying glasses 1 and 2, the distribution and fate of the particles (aggregation, molecular adsorption, dissolution, etc), and in magnifying glasses 2 and 3, uptake and eco-toxicological effect on a range of aquatic organisms at various trophic levels, leading up to the effects on human cell lines. Certain studies are performed in real environments (e.g. collection and detection of nanoparticles in road runoff and stream beds), while the majority of nanoparticle testing is done in laboratory-based test models that aim to mimic natural environments and ecosystems.





Three main questions, as shown in the image above, corresponding to these three stages of the environmental fate of nanoparticles emitted into the aquatic environment, are addressed here in this report for the case of tungsten carbide nanoparticles worn down from studded snow tires (Case study 1) and for silica nanoparticles intentionally produced and used in a variety of commercial products, such as paint (Case study 2):

1. How are nanoparticles emitted into the aquatic environment?

2. What happens to the nanoparticles when they are emitted into the aquatic environment?

3. How toxic are the nanoparticles to the relevant organisms at different levels of the food chain?



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