Adopting a long-term research strategy, the federal agencies responsible for the safety of humans and the environment - i.e. the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA), the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM), the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), the National Metrology Institute (PTB) and the German Environment Agency (UBA) - have been involved with the rapid development of new materials since 2008. The focus is on issues of worker, consumer and environment protection which are now being extended beyond nanomaterials and other innovative materials. The goal is to ensure a type of use of new materials that is safe and sustainable for users and the environment across their entire life cycle, i.e. from material development, production and processing to application, recycling or disposal.
"The BfR too contributes to this safety research in the form of studies on the detection of nanomaterials in complex matrices of consumer products and foods", says Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). "Another field of toxicological research at the BfR is the interaction of nanomaterials with cells of the human organism and their effects on human health. Here we use animal experiment-free models of molecular toxicology such as cultures of human cells or artificial organs." The investigations conducted include, among other things, silver nanoparticles which are used, for example, in food contact materials or textiles.
Thus BfR researchers have found out that pure silver nanoparticles are, following simulated digestion in the stomach and intestine, absorbed in much lower quantities than particles which are digested together with food components. This means that studies based on the pure substance without the food components can lead to a situation where the risks are not assessed correctly.
A further BfR research finding: using methods of gene and protein expression analysis (transcriptomics, proteomics), it is possible to detect whether nanoparticles cause any effects such as oxidative stress in cell cultures. The method provides a means to identify biomarkers on the basis of which the effects of nanoparticles can be traced in toxicological studies.
The release of silver through sweat from textiles containing or coated by silver was investigated by the BfR as part of another project. Textiles with a silver coating released markedly more silver in sweat simulations than textiles where nanosilver was integrated in the textile fibre. Such insights are notably important for the safe use of nanomaterials in everyday products, since human exposure to such substances is to be kept to an absolute minimum. In addition, they provide hints on the application types where nanomaterials can be safely used in products intended for consumers.
One of the goals of the research on nanomaterials and nanotoxicology at the BfR is to develop animal experiment-free testing strategies for the study of fundamental toxicological properties of new materials. For this purpose, the BfR will contribute with further projects to the updated research strategy of the federal agencies. An important focus is the development of reliable and validated methods for the detection of nanomatierlas in different matrices as well as their validation in round robin tests in cooperation with the supervisory authorities of the federal states.
The joint research strategy is part of the action plan Nanotechnology 2020 of the Federal Government passed by the Federal Cabinet on 14 September 2016. At the heart of the joint research strategy are testing methods and concepts for the characterisation and assessment of health and environmental risks which must be adapted and tested for new materials. The federal agencies thereby want to create the foundations for policy advice based on scientific knowledge. This notably applies to recommendations to the Federal Government and the EU Commission on the development of statutory provisions for the protection of humans and the environment which must keep pace with the rapid progress made in the field of material sciences. The research activities aim to promote the application-safe and environmentally friendly development of materials and their derived products.
The research strategy is implemented through the research of the participating agencies themselves, as well as tendering and awarding research services to third parties, and by taking part in predominantly publicly funded third-party projects. The research strategy - which, like the action plan "Nanotechnology", is designed for the time period up to 2020 - is supervised and evaluated by a panel of experts of the participating federal agencies.