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VigilNanos - Nanos and risks: not repeating the mistakes of the past

Nanos and risks: avoiding repeating the mistakes of the past

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Nanos and risks: avoiding repeating the mistakes of the past

By AVICENN Team – Last Modified September 2022

Given the uncertainties about the risks associated with nanomaterials, what attitude to adopt? The same questions and interplay of actors are at work as for substances such as lead, mercury, asbestos, DDTs, PCBs, phytosanitary products, parabens or bisphenol, and more recently insecticides " neonicotinoids”, etc.

How much'years will be needed before the appropriate measures are implemented, in terms of risk assessment and management?

Are we going to allow the development of mass uses of all nanomaterials without distinguishing potentially useful uses from more futile uses and crossing our fingers that there is no need to intervene after the fact... or will we manage- us to learn from similar experiences and act accordingly?

The body of knowledge is indeed evolving at a pace that institutional red tape does not allow to follow: the delays are still too long between obtaining the results, their publication then their consideration by the risk assessment and management authorities, their communication with the actors in the field and finally the concrete implementation of appropriate measures. Once large quantities of nanomaterials are released into the environment and mixed with the several hundred thousand synthetic chemical substances already present there, it will be too late to act effectively.

It is necessary to deploy a real research strategy, at international, European and French levels and in each company concerned: this strategy must be articulated with the concerns of civil society and with the needs of companies and health and environmental authorities responsible for better assessing and/or better managing these risks. Because the difficulty of evaluating, forecasting and managing risks remains enormous and pleads for more social and environmental responsibility on the part of each of the stakeholders (researchers, administrations, businesses, elected officials, associations, media, etc.).

The monitoring and information work that we carry out on our site and social networks intend to contribute to it.

A few quotes:

Mathilde Detcheverry, General Delegate of AVICENN, September 2022

Source: "Nanos, glyphosate, have we really learned the lessons of asbestos?" », 25 years of asbestos: the scandal continues, InfoDiag, Special Edition, September 2022

Dorota Napierska, Safer Chemicals program manager, August 2020

"Historically, failure to examine the risks of seemingly beneficial chemical agents has resulted in large-scale exposures that have led to adverse human health and environmental effects discovered years or decades later, although after the damage has been done. We have the opportunity to avoid repeating the same mistakes with nano-silver”.

Source: Nanosilver in healthcare – does the silver bullet exist?, European Nanomaterials Observatory, August 2020

Annabelle Littoz-Monnet, professor of political science at IHEID, November 2018

“The aim is (…) to promote a balanced debate on the potential, but also the risks and uncertainties linked to these technologies, and to answer an essential question: what decision to take in the face of uncertainty? The current state of nanotechnology research does not allow us to determine whether these materials are safe”.

Source: Nanotechnology: regulating in a situation of uncertainty, Le Temps, November 12, 2018

Philippe Bihouix, The Ecological Factory, October 2018

“A low-tech innovation? What is this strange oxymoron? Should we go back to the candle or to the age of the caves in
instead of relying on technological progress? Admittedly, low-tech does not make people dream like high-tech and its futuristic applications. And yet, if that was where true modernity and the courage to innovate lay? (…) “Green” and intelligent technologies are presented as the key to solving the planetary challenge. On closer inspection, it would be dangerous to base the ecological transition on ever more complex technological innovation: high-tech often tends to accelerate our "extractive" model, to move us away from the circular economy and to provoke many social, human and political issues. If all high-tech is not the Eldorado promised by some, it is essential to think differently and develop, in parallel, the concept and the so-called “low-tech” initiatives. »

Source: For a sustainable, sober and resilient society... Let's dare low-tech!, interview with Philippe Bihouix, Actu environnement, October 2018 and note Towards sober and resilient technologies – Why and how to develop low-tech innovation?, The Ecological Factory, October 2018.

United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), December 2017:

“From our experience with asbestos and other hazardous materials, we know the list of potential risks is long. Environmental exposure to engineered nanomaterials is unavoidable.
Their harmful effects and their persistence could have significant consequences on organisms, ecosystems and food chains. (…) Industrial development is much faster than the implementation of regulations. In the absence of long-term monitoring and due to the lack of scientific data on the many aspects related to the toxicology and toxicity of nanomaterials, the adoption of specific regulations is slow, although the signs testifying to the dangerousness of nanomaterials nanomaterials and the risks associated with exposure to them are increasingly numerous. (…) It is necessary to adopt not only transformational policies to encourage innovation and industrial applications of green chemistry, but above all appropriate and iterative regulatory frameworks that apply the precautionary principle to guarantee safety and prevent any pollution. The world cannot afford to exploit the promising possibilities offered by new materials without taking into account the lessons of the past concerning the risks and damages to health and the environment. »


Corinne Lepage, The choice of the worst, from the planet to the pollsFebruary 2017

“In fact, the real subject is not the precautionary principle, but responsibility, responsibility in the broadest sense of the term, that is to say the fact of assuming the consequences of one's choices. However, with new technologies, whether GMOs or nanotechnologies, at a certain threshold, dissemination makes it impossible to find responsibility. The objective of manufacturers is to drag things out until this threshold is reached. But this stage seems to me to have been reached today. Nanotechnologies are very widely used without any control. We live in a system in which the industrial world invents the rules of its irresponsibility. We have succeeded in emptying precaution of its content and making it a purely virtual principle by making people believe, the height of hypocrisy, that it is an obstacle to development”.


Vladimir Baulin, Nanotechnology is like the early days of radioactivity when it comes to knowing the risks, February 2, 2017

“There is an urgent need to understand the exact mechanisms of nanotoxicity and to make a classification according to the mechanism. Radioactivity or X-rays entered our lives in the same way. It took time for researchers to understand the mechanisms of action on living organisms,” warned Vladimir Baulin of the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona (Spain). »

Dr. Baulin is the co-author of an article published last November in Science Advances, which shows for the first time that nanoparticles can cross the biological membrane. The study stems from the SNAL project, funded by the European Union.


Francois Jarrige, They criticized the progress, February 22 2016

“We can already wonder what our world would be like if no one had ever questioned the benefits of technology; if nobody had worked to withdraw from the market certain toxic products such as DDT, this insecticide used in agriculture and in the fight against malaria, or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) at the origin of the hole in the ozone layer. Today, we are in a paradoxical situation. In many respects, a new techno-critical phase has begun. With the financial and economic crisis, the depletion of natural resources, the increasingly visible degradation of the environment... but also with the rise of social inequalities, many feel the need to rethink the technical project of modernity, its gigantism and its incessant acceleration. The history of techno-criticism puts into perspective certain very contemporary debates. For the first time, we dare to address the question of the power acquired by man, capable of modifying the great balances of the globe, of extinguishing or modifying animal species, of artificializing life... Yet it remains difficult to dispute technological consumerism and the fascination with the latest gadgets supposed to boost growth and solve our problems. And the debate is still caricatural between those who swear only by technical innovation and, on the contrary, those who already see the apocalypse coming…”


Sébastien Delpont, "Let's get out of the controversies on innovation", September 22, 2014

"Whatever the sincerity of the actors present, they must be aware that there is such a liability in France on these issues (asbestos, contaminated blood, chlordecone) that it is not tomorrow that we will switch, to the eyes of the public, from the presumption of guilt to the presumption of innocence when a controversy emerges. (…) The time when it was possible to impose a technology on a society convinced of the correctness of the analysis of its central State (as for nuclear power) is over. Our interconnected world has made it possible to break the information asymmetry on access to scientific research. Data on these controversies is accessible in a few clicks on dedicated sites or social networks. (…) The final consumer, the most concerned, seems to be largely overlooked in these fierce battles between manufacturers and NGOs where conflicts of interest reign. He is taken as a witness during passes of arms but without giving him all the relevant information. He no longer knows which saint to devote himself to. He needs to rely on trusted intermediaries. (…) The only way out for manufacturers launching new technologies is to enter into voluntary and positive steps in the sectors to settle these controversies. These transparent approaches must integrate all the stakeholders from the outset: manufacturers, distributors, associations, public authorities in the analysis of risks, the hunt for conflicts of interest and the explanation to the general public. »


David Suzuki, Speculation, closed eyes and unpleasant surprises, August 12, 2014

“Nanomaterials may turn out to be a boon to humans, but we know too little about their long-term effects to blindly incorporate them into our food and other products. If we have to remember one thing from the past, it's that while we can speculate about the benefits of new technologies, reality doesn't always match speculation and a lack of knowledge can lead to nasty surprises downstream. »


Philippe Bihouix, author of The age of low techJuly 2014

“The more high-tech we are, the less we produce recyclable products and the more we use rare resources that we will eventually run out of. It is absurd to believe that technological solutions can be deployed at the right scale. Thus all the agricultural residues on the planet would not be enough to cover our plastic consumption alone. We must therefore turn to low technologies. First think about our needs. Before learning to do without cars, curb engine power, lighten weight. Designing simpler objects, favoring mono-materials, reducing electronic content (the Italian coffee maker versus the espresso machine) and setting up a network for recovery, repair, resale, sharing of everyday objects, tools, toys, appliances household. On this Earth, everything has an impact. There will never be a “clean” car, even if its energy would be “zero emissions”. It is therefore in temperance that we must seek salvation…”


Steffen Foss Hansen and David Gee, Adequate and prospective research on the potential dangers of new technologies: a case of myopia and inertia?, June 2014

“History confirms that despite the many benefits brought by technological innovations, they can also cause great human suffering, environmental degradation and economic costs. Aren't we stuttering history with chemicals and new technologies? (…) In light of the history of past technological risks, where research on health and environmental aspects has been carried out too little too late, we suggest that it would be prudent to devote between 5 and 15% from research and development to research on health and environmental aspects in order to anticipate and reduce potential risks while maximizing the commercial life of emerging technologies. »


William Dab, What risk mapping?, June 15, 2014

“Uncertain risks deserve organized public debate and put politics first. If they concern large populations, they constitute a priority for research (case of nanotechnologies, for example). Emerging risks call for specific vigilance procedures, dedicated research programs and educational actions. »


Roger Lenglet, NanotoxicsMarch 2014

"Certainly the dossiers on carcinogenic dyes and air fresheners, calves with hormones, bisphenol A, not to mention 'mad cow' disease, aluminum salts and mercury in vaccines and fillings, for example, have left traces in the memories. But many people are so made that they imagine that we will not make the same mistakes again. Even more people want to maintain their trust in the “safeguards” thinking that it is a necessary belief to continue to live happily. An immemorial formula expresses it: “If we paid attention to everything, we would no longer live. Modern society has engendered this feeling and continues to maintain it, making us delegate prudence and attention to dangers to higher authorities. »


Emmanuel Fort – Nanoparticles and biomedical innovation: Therapeutic advances, health risks?, December 13, 2013

“The rate of innovation is spectacular and the diagnostic and therapeutic advances considerable. But what about the harmful effects of nanoparticles on our health… and on the animal and even plant world? Researchers are wondering about the possible ecotoxicity of these materials, such as those that are more and more commonly used in cosmetics and bath products.
Today, researchers at the Langevin Institute urge us to be cautious about the proliferation of cosmetic products based on nanoparticles – in particular those of silver. The gold nanoparticle would be harmless, especially if it is surrounded by a layer of silica, but again contradictory studies have appeared. Radium, discovered by Marie Curie and which was slowly fatal to her, also had its hour of glory and was used until the end of the 1930s in all kinds of everyday consumer products, from toothpaste to fluorescent clock hands, in going through sodas. Workers put it in their hair for its glitter effect, and an otolaryngological use for children even continued in the United States until the 70s.


Luc Perino – Good students of agnotology, November 27, 2013

"The danger of lead additives in gasoline was discovered in the 1930s and leaded gasoline was banned in 2000. The carcinogenic role of asbestos was demonstrated in the 1930s and it was not until the 1990s for the first prohibition laws to come into force. The responsibility of tobacco in lung cancer was highlighted by the study of Doll en Hill and 1950 and the first effective laws against tobacco appeared more than thirty years later. The harmful effects of excessive sugar consumption were evident at the beginning of the 1960th century and the first alarms were raised in the XNUMXs.
These examples, among the best known, show an incompressible delay of 30 to 60 years between proof of harmfulness and the first legislation intended to reduce it. The length of this delay is linked to the power of the lobbies and their expertise in “agnotology”. This neologism of Proctor designates the "science" consisting in producing doubt and ignorance, its simple principle is based on a cascade ofamalgams: any study being always open to criticism, criticism becomes equivalent to an absence of proof, and the absence of proof is then assimilated to an absence of harm. The mainstream media are its natural amplifier, since their vitality comes from polemics and the plurality of words.


Stéphane Foucart – Irrationality(s), November 15, 2013

“Science thus lags behind the formidable capacity for innovation in industry. Knowing that the regulations themselves are structurally behind science, the irrationality trial against the opponents of the “nanos” takes on a rather paradoxical dimension. Because if it is not reasonable to advocate the abandonment of research on these objects with such great promise, it does not seem very rational either to have generalized their use without having better explored the risks..
Disqualification for irrationality is an old refrain: in 1992, the famous Heidelberg appeal (signed by hundreds of scholars) already castigated the “irrational prejudices” of environmental defense movements. The Heidelberg appeal already installed the idea that any demand for a healthy environment, formulated outside the scientific establishment, was suspect of irrationality. It was realized, but a bit late, that the asbestos industry was behind the text. »


Collectives of researchers – Scientific innovation: the voice of the citizens! October 29, 2013

"more than a century of scientific and technical development has shown us that if this development has made it possible in certain areas to improve the living conditions of men and the environment, the opposite has unfortunately largely manifested itself in many areas. (biodiversity, climate, atmospheric and marine pollution, technological accidents, etc.). The need for society to control these developments is now obvious”


William Dab – Nanotechnology, a textbook case, July 14, 2013

“When we talk about the risks of new technologies, nanotechnologies are certainly a textbook case. (…) Nanoparticles obviously raise health safety issues because their size allows them to cross biological barriers. The rapid development of this market will lead to increased human exposure. This is the only certainty that we have, because for the rest, we face more questions than answers. Some toxicological studies show that they can induce pathological processes. At this stage, it is a signal more than a proof. In reality, this is an area of ​​greatest uncertainty. and it is in this that it is a textbook case. Getting to market is happening at such a pace that risk assessment capabilities can't keep up."


European Environment Agency (EEA) – Early signals and late lessons, vol. 2, January 2013

" The first volume of Early Signals and Late Lessons (Late Lessons from Early Warnings) published in 2001 was a groundbreaking report detailing the history of technologies that were later deemed unsafe. the 2 volume of 750 pages published in January 2013 includes 20 new case studies including a case study on nanotechnology.
Historical case studies show that warnings were ignored or brushed aside until health and environmental damage became unavoidable. In some cases, companies have favored short-term profits over public safety by hiding or ignoring the existence of potential risks. In other cases, scientists have minimized the risks, sometimes under pressure from interest groups. These lessons could help us to avoid harmful consequences caused by new technologies. Five of these stories also illustrate the benefits of being quick to respond to warning signs.
Favoring the precautionary principle is almost always beneficial – following the analysis of 88 cases of alleged “false alarms”, the authors of the report only validated four of them. The report also shows that precautionary measures often stimulate rather than stifle innovation. »


A question, a remark ? This sheet produced by AVICENN is intended to be supplemented and updated. Please feel free to contribute.

The next nano appointments

“Nano and Health” dialogue committee (ANSES, Maisons-Alfort)
Dialogue Committee
  • 14th meeting of the “nano and health” dialogue committee
  • Organizer: ANSES
  • Website :
Nanomaterials, how to identify them more efficiently? (LNE, Paris)
  • Technical Day
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  • On the agenda: identification of nanomaterials, recent technological innovations in terms of particle size characterization, areas for progress to be considered 
  • Upcoming program
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NanoSafe conference 2023 (CEA, Grenoble)
  • 8th International Conference on Health Issues for a Responsible Approach to Nanomaterials
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  • Organizer: Commissariat for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies (CEA)
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This sheet was originally created in November 2013

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