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VigilanceNanos - 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 AVICENN Team – Last Added June 2022

What release of manufactured nanomaterials into the environment?

Few data exist on the release of manufactured nanomaterials

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

We can distinguish the release:

  • of natural nanoparticles found for example in dust from erosion or volcanic eruption or even in sea spray;
  • of so-called “incidental” nanoparticles because produced "involuntarily" by human activities, emanating from fumes (from combustion of wood, industrial, emanating from diesel engines, incinerators, toasters or ovens) or from the abrasion of non-nanometric raw materials;
  • of engineered nanomaterials purposely produced at the nanometric scale by researchers and industrialists to exploit their specific properties.

Today we have a very limited knowledge of the quantities and types of manufactured nanomaterials – or residues of these nanomaterials - which are released into the environment. However, these data are important for better understanding the exposure of ecosystems and populations (particularly workers) to nanomaterials, in order to better protect them from the associated risks.

In 2013, researchers estimated that between 63 and 91% of the approximately 300 tons of manufactured nanomaterials produced in the world in 000 ended up in landfills, the rest being released mainly into the grounds (8 to 28%), in the water (from 0,4 to 7%), or in l'atmosphere (0,1-1,5%)1-Global life cycle releases of engineered nanomaterials, Journal of Nanoparticle Research, May 2013.
-Also: Note, this clarification by Olivier Boucher, research director at the CNRS dynamic meteorology laboratory, concerning the allegations conveyed on social networks about nanoparticles that would be released by planes (“chemtrails”): “Are planes releasing chemicals without our knowledge? », France Culture, July 28, 2018. In September 2019, however, we learned from 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 then in water and soil? The press release does not say...
. But these figures are far below reality and the information collected in particular by the r-nano register, still do not allow estimate and locate the volumes of nanomaterials released into the environment.

How are nanomaterials released?

The release of nanomaterials or nanomaterial residues may occur during thedirect use of products which contain it or under theeffect of wear,abrasion or their degradation, for example :

According to the current knowledge on the release, it is assumed that the release will be more important, in decreasing order, for sprays, tires, sun creams, textiles, exterior paints and cements (whose share could nevertheless increase considerably in the near future)7“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, Jun 2012), and to a lesser extent for the plastic or metal coatings of household appliances, or for the windows to which the nanomaterials are more firmly “fixed”.

A complex phenomenon, throughout the “life cycle”

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

What releases during the production, transformation and transport of nanomaterials?

This question arises, in particular:

  • in mines where the extraction of materials from which certain nanomaterials are made (eg titanium for titanium dioxide nanoparticles) is carried out?
  • in the workplaces where they are synthesized / manipulated / transformed?
  • in industrial effluents?
  • on the transport routes (maritime, road or rail) of the materials in the event of an accident?

Not considering the law does not currently provide for any specific provision on the containment and securing the premises where engineered nanomaterials are present or on thee treatment of industrial effluents potentially containing nanomaterials.

What releases at the "end of life" of the products?

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

To be continued ...11Mid 2022, the review Nanomaterials launched a call for papers for a special issue: See Special Issue “Quantitative Material Releases from Products and Articles Containing Manufactured Nanomaterials”, Nanomaterials, 2022 (deadline for submission of publications: January 31, 2023)

Research work on the release of nanomaterials (necessary updates)
  • In France :
    • Management of waste and effluents containing nanomaterials. Future and impact in the treatment and recovery sectors – Summary , RECORD, 2019
    • Project NANOTOX'IN : Assessment of the risks induced by the incineration of nanocomposites with emerging polymer matrices: during the incineration process, do these new plastic products based on nanoparticles release nanoparticles? With what risks for public health? A project funded by ADEME, carried out by Armines (Ecole des Mines de Saint-Etienne and École des mines d'Alès) and the National Metrology and Testing Laboratory (LNE) in 2016 and 2017
    • Project AgingNano&Troph :
      • purpose: to determine the environmental impact of the degradation residues of marketed nanomaterials: fate, biotransformation and toxicity with respect to target organisms in an aquatic environment
      • funding: the National Research Agency
      • period: 2009-2012
    • Several years ago, the CEA began work on the dispersion in the air of nanoparticles released during the abrasion of nanomaterials: PET and PVC nanotextiles, or paints and polymers within the framework of the European NanoHouse project mentioned below.
    • NanoEMIS :
    • The work carried out under the Labex Serenade should also make it possible to provide elements since the aim is to achieve eco-design of nano-products, which therefore do not release toxic nanomaterials into the environment.
    • La INERIS nano-secure platform set up in 2014 studies in particular the emissivity of nanoparticles in the ambient air by materials and products throughout their life cycle, notably through the Nano-Data project14 ; see also our sheet on INERIS nano work.
  • At the European level :
    • NanoHouse :
      • subject: analysis of the life cycle 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 an overall budget of €3,1 million
      • period: January 2010 – June 2013
      • French partners: the CEA et ISearth
      • results : Influence of paint 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: the assessment of the major health risks associated with nanotechnology 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: the CEREGE

What 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? We know that because of their small size, nanomaterials have a strong propensity to disperse and can reach inaccessible places to larger particles. But 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 falling12Effects 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, June 23, 2020
    -Differentially charged nanoplastics demonstrate distinct accumulation in Arabidopsis thaliana, Xiao-Dong Sun et al., Nature Nanotechnology, June 22 2020
    - Marie Simonin's thesis of 2015: 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) NPs in six agricultural soils. The study concludes that TiO2 NPs are not toxic to microbial communities, except in 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 on the diversity of bacteria and archaea. In addition, negative effects are observed on nitrification, even for extremely low concentrations of TiO2 (0.05 mg kg-1), mainly related to a high sensitivity to this pollutant of the ammonium oxidizing archaea (AOA) involved in this process. process.
    : Do they migrate to groundwater or are they stuck in the ground before reaching groundwater? end up in the soil after spreading on agricultural land of sludge from treatment plants in container (made to complete the purification while serving as fertilizer)?
  • 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 that live on aquatic sediments
    • or on the contrary remain in suspension (in particular if they are functionalized on the surface or coated) and disperse easily, increasing the risk of exposure; we would already find nanomaterials in the treatment plants urban and industrial water treatment, but the treatments in place were not designed to filter them14See on this subject the work of the “Nanotechnology waste” working group Regional observatory of industrial waste in Midi-Pyrénées (ORDIMIP): a non-negligible part of them is therefore found in surface water, as for the others, they accumulate in the sludge of treatment plants spread on agricultural land!

More generally, nanomaterials or residues of nanomaterials can also:

Many questions still unanswered

Once in the environment, nanomaterials or nanomaterial residues can undergo transformations: which ones and under what conditions? Many parameters can intervene and train, for example, 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 that come into play are numerous and variable (the light16On the influence of light on the physico-chemical parameters of nanomaterials, see for example:
- New study shows how engineered nanomaterials degrade and persist in the environment, World News, September 1, 2021 (English release: New Study Shows How Engineered Nanomaterials Degrade, Persist in Environment, George Washington University, September 1, 2021)
, the degree of acidity17On the influence of acidity on the physico-chemical parameters of nanomaterials, see for example:
- Fate of iron nanoparticles in the environment. Colloidal stability, chemical reactivity and impacts on plants, thesis of Edwige Demangeat, Geosciences Rennes UMR 6118, 2018
- Natural acids in soil could protect rice from toxic nanoparticles, Science News, April 2015
or salinity18On the influence of salinity on the physico-chemical 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 through 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. , About Toxicol Chem. 2016
for example can be decisive). With, as a result, great difficulty in determining, in each case, the effects on ecosystems. Because many studies have long been carried out on synthetic nanoparticles and 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 still not very generalizable and should be considered with caution.

Research work on the fate of nanomaterials in the environment

Rare are the studies that relate specifically and almost exclusively to the fate of nanomaterials in the environment. In 2012, we spotted the following projects (contribute to updating this list, by notifying us of the projects at redaction(at)

  • In France :
    • Management of waste and effluents containing nanomaterials. Future and impact in the treatment and recovery sectors – Summary , RECORD, 2019
    • the program Aquanano :
      • subject: the transfer and fate of nanoparticles to groundwater
      • funding: 1,6 million euros from the National Research Agency
      • period: 2007-2010
      • partners: the CEREGE,INERIS, the Suez-Environnement Research Center, the BRGM (coordinator), a leading public body in the field of Earth sciences for the management of soil and subsoil resources and risks.
    • the project AgingNano&Troph :
      • subject: the environmental impact of the degradation residues of marketed nanomaterials: fate, biotransformation and toxicity with respect to target organisms in an aquatic environment
      • funding: €500 from the National Research Agency
      • period: 2009-2011
    • the project MESONNET
      • subject: the potential consequences of nanoparticles on ecosystems; the approach uses “mesocosms” : huge aquariums reproducing a mini ecosystem in which the behavior of nanoparticles in contact with plants, fish, soil and water is studied at different dosages. The transfer of nanoparticles in a porous medium of more complex composition must be studied there.
      • 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
    • le project to assess the phytoavailability of nanomaterials
      • object: if the presence of nanomaterials in cultivated soils is probable in the short term, the risk of their passage in the food chain via the crops remains to be specified: it is a question of quantitatively evaluating the phytoavailability of nanomaterials with respect to crops intended for animal or human consumption.
      • period: 2013
      • partners: the CEREGE and CIRAD


  • In Swiss
  • At the European level :
    • the project NanoFATE is dedicated to evaluating the fate of nanoparticles in the environment. Initiated in April 2010, it is funded to the tune of 2,5 million euros by the European Commission (for an overall budget of 3,25 million euros) until April 2014. On the twelve partners involved, only one is French: the Symlog Institute. The conclusions 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) and which aims to understand and control the behavior of nanomaterials in the environment, by proposing an integrated approach to controlling risks and protocols. INERIS is participating in it for France.
  • Other projects address the future of nanomaterials among other aspects related to the analysis of the risks associated with nanomaterials. For more information, see in particular the list of European projects on the health or environmental safety of nanotechnology carried out in May 2012 by the Institute of Technology Assessment of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, or the more detailed document “Compendium of Projects in the European NanoSafety Cluster” published in February 2012.
  • In the USA, the American consortium “Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology” (BELT) directed by Marc Wiesner studies in particular the transfer of nanomaterials in the environment.
  • Within the OECD, the Working Group on Resource Productivity and Waste (GTPRD) has worked on the fate and impacts of nanomaterials contained in products and released during the processing of these products at the end of their life (incineration, landfilling, spreading sludge from treatment plants).

A remark, a question? 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
  • Organizer: National Metrology and Testing Laboratory (LNE)
  • On the agenda: identification of nanomaterials, recent technological innovations in terms of particle size characterization, areas for progress to be considered 
  • Upcoming program
  • Website :…
NanoSafe conference 2023 (CEA, Grenoble)
  • 8th International Conference on Health Issues for a Responsible Approach to Nanomaterials
  • June 5-9, 2023
  • Organizer: Commissariat for Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies (CEA)
  • Website :…  

Sheet initially created in September 2012

Notes & references

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