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How safe is "nano"?

Nanocosmetics, nanopaint, nano car-wash: "Nano" is already a well-established market, with nanoparticle sales forecast at 900 million US dollars in 2005. So far though, not much is known about the short and long-term effects on health and environment.

Nanoparticles have already found their way into a wide range of products: cosmetics, paints or tires. These tiny particles are even a selling point for car-care products. So far, however, little research has been done into how they impact on the environment and the human organism. INOS, the "Identification and Assessment of the Risks of Engineered Nanoparticles on Human Health and Environment" research project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, now aims to throw light on these issues. The Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems IKTS in Dresden is involved in this project. "We can draw on our extensive experience of working with powders on a nanometer scale," reports project manager Dr. Volkmar Richter of the IKTS. The Dresden-based researchers are now investigating synthetic nanoparticles, which are manufactured by project partners and already in use for engineering purposes. These include hard materials such as tungsten carbide, metals like platinum, and carbon nanotubes. These nanoparticles are sheathed in oxide or organic films at the IKTS – the films form during processing or are applied specifically to modify properties. These protective coatings can however influence how materials interact with water and cells. The scientists are investigating the nanoparticles – with and without protective sheaths, individually and as agglomerates – in cell cultures. This research should allow them to find out how easily the particles can penetrate into cells of skin, lungs, intestines or nervous system. Do they cause genetic damage or have an effect on the immune system? The answers to these questions are still unclear. Research findings are still scarce and often contradictory. "That’s not surprising, often you find publications with don't specify the precise characteristics of the particles," Volkmar Richter adds critically. And it is precisely these failings that the IKTS researchers want to address through INOS. A joint project involving TU Dresden and the UFZ Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig-Halle aims to find out how nanoparticles affect cells, without performing tests on animals.The researchers will make their findings public in a database. After the end of the project, an accredited laboratory is also planned, which will act as a point of contact for small and mid-sized enterprises in particular and carry out further analysis of nanoparticles.For further information: Dr. Volkmar Richter Phone: +49 351 2553-614 Fax: +49 351 2554-180 Fraunhofer-Institut für Keramische Technologien und Systeme IKTS Winterbergstr. 28 01277 Dresden

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