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VeilleNanos - Release, fate and transformation of nanos in the environment

Release, fate and transformation of nanos in the environment

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Release, fate and transformation of nanos in the environment

By the AVICENN team – Last updated June 2022

Release of manufactured nanomaterials into the environment

Little data exists on the release of manufactured nanomaterials

The “release” of nanomaterials refers to the phenomenon whereby nanomaterials – or nanomaterial degradation residues – are released into the environment. The term “emissivity” is also sometimes used.

A distinction can be made between:

  • natural nanoparticles found, for example, in erosion or volcanic eruption dust or in sea spray
  • nanoparticles known as “incidental” because they are produced “involuntarily” by human activities, emanating from smoke (from wood combustion, industrial smoke, smoke from diesel engines, incinerators, toasters or ovens) or from the abrasion of non-nanometric raw materials
  • manufactured nanomaterials purposely produced at the nanoscale by researchers and industry to exploit their specific properties.

There is currently very limited knowledge of the quantities and types of manufactured nanomaterials – or residues of these nanomaterialsthat are released into the environment. These data are important to better understand the exposure to nanomaterials of ecosystems and populations (especially workers), in order to better protect them from the associated risks.

In 2013, researchers estimated that between 63 and 91% of the approximately 300,000 tons of manufactured nanomaterials produced worldwide in 2010 ended up in landfills, with the remainder being released primarily into soils (8 to 28%), in water (from 0.4 to 7%), or in the atmosphere (0.1-1.5%)1Global life cycle releases of engineered nanomaterials, Journal of Nanoparticle Research, May 2013.
-Also: Note this clarification by Olivier Boucher, director of research at the CNRS laboratory of dynamic meteorology, concerning the allegations made on social networks about nanoparticles released by airplanes (“chemtrails”): “Do planes release chemicals without our knowledge?”, France Culture, July 28, 2018. In September 2019, however, it was learned by Emirates News Agency, that the National Meteorological Center (NMC) of the United Arab Emirates had launched a campaign of cloud seeding tests with titanium dioxide nanoparticles applied to salt crystals. The objective is to better control rainfall. What about the transport and effects of these nanoparticles in water and soil? The press release does not say so….
. However, these figures are far below reality and the information collected by the r-nano register, in particular, still does not allow us to estimate and locate the volumes of nanomaterials released into the environment.

How are nanomaterials released?

The release of nanomaterials or nanomaterial residues can occur during the direct use of products containing them or under the effect of wear, abrasion or their degradation, for example:

Based on current knowledge of nano release, it is assumed that it will be at its highest, in descending order, for sprays, tires, sunscreens, textiles, exterior paints and cements (whose share could nevertheless increase considerably in the near future7“in the future, the largest flows and stocks of TiO2 NPs could be related to self-cleaning cement” in Particle Flow Analysis: Exploring Potential Use Phase Emissions of Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles from Sunscreen, Paint, and Cement, Arvidsson R et al, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 16(3): 343-351, June 2012), and to a lesser extent for plastic or metallic coatings of household appliances, or for glass, to which nanomaterials are more firmly “attached”.

A complex phenomenon occurring throughout the “life cycle

The release of manufactured nanomaterials can occur throughout the “life cycle” of products, without it being known today in what form, in what quantities, and with what effects precisely. At each stage of the life cycle, many parameters come into play. The release will indeed be different according to the way nanomaterials are presented (in powder form, in solution, deposited on a surface or integrated into a matrix, etc.), the conditions of production/use/waste management, and the “medium” that surrounds them: air, water, soil, etc.

Releases during production, processing and transport of nanomaterials

Where do releases occur? In particular:

  • in mines where the materials from which some nanomaterials are made are extracted (for example titanium for titanium dioxide nanoparticles)?
  • in workplaces where they are synthesized/handled/processed?
  • in industrial effluents?
  • on the transport routes (sea, road or rail) of materials in case of an accident?

In addition, the law does not currently include any specific provisions on the containment and securing of places where manufactured nanomaterials are present, nor on the treatment of industrial effluents potentially containing nanomaterials.

What are the releases at the “end of life” of products?

These questions need to be explored further, as published work on the release of nanomaterials into the environment is still fragmentary. In addition, many studies have been carried out under conditions that are often far from those encountered in reality and on nanomaterials that are different from those actually incorporated in products currently on the market. Research is underway to learn more10See for example Nanosafety Analysis of Graphene-Based Polyester Resin Composites on a Life Cycle Perspective, Aznar Mollá, F et al, Nanomaterials, 12, 2036, 2022.

To be continued…11In mid-2022, the journal Nanomaterials issued a call for papers for a special issue: Cf. Special Issue “Quantitative Material Releases from Products and Articles Containing Manufactured Nanomaterials Nanomaterials, 2022 (deadline for submission of publications: January 31, 2023)

Research on the release of nanomaterials (updates needed)
  • In France :
  • At the European level:
    • NanoHouse:
      • subject: life cycle assessment of nanomaterials for construction, in particular on chronic exposure for silver and titanium dioxide nanoparticles contained in paints and coatings used inside and outside homes
      • funding: €2.4 million from the European Commission, out of a total budget of €3.1 million
      • period: January 2010 – June 2013
      • French partners: CEA and ISTerre
      • results: Influence of paints formulations on nanoparticles release during their life cycle, Fiorentino B et al, Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 17:149, March 2015
    • NEPHH (Nanomaterials-related Environmental Pollution and Health Hazards throughout their life-cycle)
      • subject: assessment of the major health risks associated with nanotechnologies and resulting from the production, use and degradation of silicon-based polymer nanocomposites.
      • funding: €2.4 million from the European Commission
      • period: 2009-2012
      • French partners: CEREGE
  • Within the OECD, the Working Group on Resource Productivity and Waste (WG-RPW) has been examining the fate and impacts of nanomaterials contained in products and released during the processing of those products at the end of their life. Three reports on the incineration, recycling and landfilling of waste containing nanomaterials were submitted to delegates from OECD member countries in late 2013, before being published in November 2015:

What is the fate and behavior of manufactured nanomaterials in the environment?

What mobility and accumulation of nanomaterials in the environment?

What happens to nanomaterials or nanomaterial residues once they are released into the environment? It is known that due to their small size, nanomaterials have a strong propensity to disperse and can reach places inaccessible to larger particles. To what extent and in what form(s)?

  • In the air: nanomaterials released into the air can disperse easily and over long distances in the atmosphere before falling back down12Effects of nanoparticles on climate and air pollution, Patrick Rairoux – LASIM and Christian and Georges – IRCELYON, presentation at the seminar “Nanomaterials in the environment and impacts on ecosystems and human health” organized by EnvitéRA, July 2012.
  • In the soil13See in particular:- Plastic pollution also threatens plants (and by the way, our food), Marcus Dupont-Besnard, 23 June 2020
    Differentially charged nanoplastics demonstrate distinct accumulation in Arabidopsis thaliana, Xiao-Dong Sun et al, Nature Nanotechnology, 22 June 2020
    -Marie Simonin’s 2015 thesis: Dynamics, reactivity and ecotoxicity of metal oxide nanoparticles in soils: impact on the functions and diversity of microbial communities. The study concerns titanium dioxide (TiO2) and copper oxide (CuO) nanoparticles in six agricultural soils. The study concludes that there is no toxicity of TiO2 nanoparticles on the microbial communities, except in a silty-clay soil with a high organic matter content. In this soil, negative effects were observed after 90 days of exposure on microbial activities (respiration, nitrification and denitrification), on the abundance of nitrifying microorganisms and the diversity of bacteria and archaea. Moreover, negative effects are observed on nitrification, even for extremely low concentrations of TiO2 (0.05 mg kg-1), mainly related to a strong sensitivity to this pollutant of the ammonium oxidizing archaea (AOA) involved in this process.
    : do they migrate into groundwater or are they trapped in the soil before reaching the water table? Do they end up in the soil after the application of sludge from wastewater treatment plants containing them (which is done to complete the treatment process while serving as a fertilizer) to agricultural land?
  • In aquatic environments, nanoparticles can:
    • sediment by gravity (especially in the case of aggregated and/or hydrophobic nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes) which increases the risk of contact with microorganisms living on aquatic sediments
    • or on the contrary remain in suspension (especially if they are functionalized on the surface or coated) and disperse easily14Transport of nanoparticulate TiO2 UV-filters through a saturated sand column at environmentally relevant concentrations, Motellier D et al., Science of the Total Environment, 811, 152408, mars 2022, increasing the risk of exposure; nanomaterials are already found in water treatment plants and industrial water treatment, but the treatments in place were not designed to filter them15See the work of the “Nanotechnology waste” working group of the Midi-Pyrenees Regional Industrial Waste Observatory (ORDIMIP). A significant part ends up in surface waters, while the others accumulate in the sludge of wastewater treatment plants spread on agricultural land…

More generally, nanomaterials or nanomaterial residues can also :

Many questions are still unanswered

Once in the environment, nanomaterials or nanomaterial residues can undergo transformations: which ones and under what conditions? Many parameters come into play and lead, for example, to their dispersion or sedimentation in aquatic environments, depending on whether they remain isolated or aggregate. What happens when they come into contact with naturally occurring suspended matter (mineral, chemical or biological materials)?

All these questions cannot have a simple answer, as the factors involved are so numerous and variable (the light17On the influence of light on the physicochemical parameters of nanomaterials, see for example:
New Study Shows How Engineered Nanomaterials Degrade, Persist in Environment, News of the World, Sept. 1, 2021 (news release in English: New Study Shows How Engineered Nanomaterials Degrade, Persist in Environment, George Washington University, Sept. 1, 2021)
, the degree of acidity18On the influence of acidity on the physicochemical parameters of nanomaterials, see for example:
Fate of iron nanoparticles in the environment. Colloidal stability, chemical reactivity and impacts on plants Edwige Demangeat’s thesis, Geosciences Rennes UMR 6118, 2018
Natural acids in soil could protect rice from toxic nanoparticles, Science News, April 2015
or salinity19On the influence of salinity on the physicochemical parameters of nanomaterials, see for example: On how environmental and experimental conditions affect the results of aquatic nanotoxicology on brine shrimp (Artemia salina): A case of silver nanoparticles toxicity, Environmental Pollution, 255, 3, 113358, December 2019
Combined influence of oxygenation and salinity on aggregation kinetics of the silver reference nanomaterial NM-300K, Devoille L et al, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 37(4): 1007-1013, April 2018
Nanomaterials across a salinity gradient: exposure and ecotoxicological effects during their life cycle Carole Bertrand, thesis, 2016, with the participation of Laure Giamberini, in connection with the project NanoSALT supported by the ANR to understand the fate of Ag and CeO2 nanoparticles from textiles and paints.
The influence of salinity on the fate and behavior of silver standardized nanomaterial and toxicity effects in the estuarine bivalve Scrobicularia plana, Bertrand, C et al. , Environ Toxicol Chem, 2016
for example, can be decisive). As a result, it is very difficult to determine the effects on ecosystems in each case. Because many studies have long been conducted on synthetic nanoparticles under conditions different from those encountered in reality, the behavior of nanomaterials observed in experiments does not reflect that (or those) of nanomaterial residues actually present in the environment. The results are therefore not yet generalizable and should be considered with caution.

Research on the fate of nanomaterials in the environment

Few studies focus specifically and almost exclusively on the fate of nanomaterials in the environment. In 2012, we had identified the following projects (help us update this list, by reporting projects to us at redaction(at)

  • In France:
    • Management of waste and effluents containing nanomaterials. Fate and impact in the treatment and recovery processes – Summary RECORD, 2019
    • Aquanano Program:
      • subject: transfer and fate of nanoparticles in groundwater
      • funding: 1.6 million euros from the National Research Agency
      • period: 2007-2010
      • partners: CEREGE, INERIS, the Suez-Environment Research Center, BRGM (coordinator), a public organization that is a reference in the field of earth sciences for the management of soil and subsoil resources and risks.
    • AgingNano & Troph project:
      • subject: the environmental impact of degradation residues of marketed nanomaterials: fate, biotransformation and toxicity with respect to target organisms in an aquatic environment
      • funding: €500,000 from the National Research Agency
      • period: 2009-2011
    • the MESONNET project
      • object: the potential consequences of nanoparticles on ecosystems; the approach uses “mesocosms”: huge aquariums reproducing a mini eco-system in which the behavior of nanoparticles in contact with plants, fish, soil and water is studied at different doses. The transfer of nanoparticles in porous medium of more complex composition must be studied.
      • funding: nearly 2 million euros from the ANR
      • period: end of 2010- end of 2014
      • partners: CEREGE, IMEP, LCMCP, ECOLAB, CIRIMAT, CEA, LIEBE, Institut Néel/FAME, CINaM, LHYGES, DUKE University
    • the project to evaluate the phyto-availability of nanomaterials
      • purpose: if the presence of nanomaterials in cultivated soils is likely in the short term, the risk of their passage into the food chain via crops remains to be specified: this involves quantitatively evaluating the phyto-availability of nanomaterials with respect to crops intended for animal or human consumption.
      • period: 2013
      • partners: CEREGE and CIRAD


  • In Switzerland
  • At the European level:
    • The NanoFATE project is dedicated to the evaluation of the fate of nanoparticles in the environment. Initiated in April 2010, it is financed with 2.5 million euros by the European Commission (for a global budget of 3.25 million euros) until April 2014. Of the twelve partners involved, only one is French: the Symlog Institute. The findings published in November 2014 were relayed by Science for Environment Policy, a service of the European Commission in a summary sheet.
    • The FP7 project nanoMILE (2013-2017): Engineered nanomaterial mechanisms of interactions with living systems and the environment: a universal framework for safe nanotechnology. It aims to document the interactions between nanoparticles and living organisms throughout the life cycle.
    • The European project NANOFASE coordinated by NERC (Natural Environment Research Council) aims to understand and control the behavior of nanomaterials in the environment, by proposing an integrated approach to risk management and protocols. INERIS is participating for France.
  • Other projects address the fate of nanomaterials among other aspects of nanomaterial risk analysis. For more information, please refer to the list of European projects on health or environmental safety of nanotechnologies conducted in May 2012 by the Institute of Technology Assessment of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, or the more detailed “Compendium of Projects in the European NanoSafety Cluster”. published in February 2012.
  • In the United States, the American consortium “Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology” (CEINT) directed by Marc Wiesner is studying the transfer of nanomaterials into the environment.
  • Within the OECD, the Resource Productivity and Waste Working Group (RWWG) has been working on the fate and impacts of nanomaterials contained in products and released during the treatment of these products at the end of their life cycle (incineration, landfilling, spreading of sewage sludge).

Any questions or comments? This information sheet compiled by AVICENN is intended to be completed and updated. Please feel free to contribute.

Upcoming Nano Agenda

Managing the risks associated with nanomaterials (CEA, Grenoble)
  • Awareness-raising aimed at personnel in contact with nanomaterials during research, formulation, production, maintenance, cleaning, upkeep, etc., as well as safety coordinators or engineers, facility managers, heads of laboratories where nanoparticles are handled.
  • Organizers: INSTN Grenoble (CEA)
  • On the agenda: potential impact on health; metrology and protection; control of potential risks associated with nanomaterials; consideration of societal aspects.
  • Website:
Nanomaterials and Health (ANSES, Maisons-Alfort)
Dialogue Committee
Nanoparticles NPC-24 (ETH, Zurich)
  • 27th ETH Nanoparticles Conference
  • Organizer: ETH Zurich
  • From June 10 to June 14, 2024
  • Website:

File initially created in September 2012

Notes and references

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