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Nanoremediation: Information for Decision Makers from NanoRem

Thematic Page 5 Risk Perception Issues


1.  Aim
2.  Introduction
3.  Origins of Perceived Risk
4.  Perceived Risk from the UK Perspective
5.  NanoRem Activities
6.  Additional Resources on the NanoRem web site
7.  References
8.  Feedback and Opinions

1 Aim

nZVI is the dominant nanoparticle used in remediation to date. The aim of this page is to discuss the perceived risks associated with the use of nZVI for the remediation of contaminated land, and to identify the means by which the NanoRem projects aims to reduce this perceived risk.

This thematic page summarises information provided by a chapter of the NanoRem report: 'A Risk/Benefit Appraisal for the Application of Nano-Scale Zero Valent Iron (nZVI) for the Remediation of Contaminated Sites'. The full report including additional information, detail and referencing can be downloaded from: 

2 Introduction

Perceived risks describe the subjective impression of risks that might be held by particular individuals or groups of individuals. Nanoremediation is seen as a relatively recent technology with gaps in knowledge of both the technology and in the fate and transport of nanoparticles in the environment. Therefore it is viewed as a potentially risky technology by some members of the general public, problem holders and environmental regulators. Given the heightened perception of potential risks from NPs in the environment, as well as limited validated evidence from nZVI use in the field - particularly for modified forms - it is likely that a higher burden of proof may be required by regulators prior to licensing nZVI based in situ remediation techniques, compared with other in situ remediation techniques.

3 Origins of Perceived Risk


The considerable public wariness of new technologies coupled with acknowledged gaps in present understanding of nanomaterials has resulted in many reports of perceived risks (Nowack 2008). These need to be acknowledged and addressed if the benefits of nanotechnology are to be fully realised.  The perceived risks from nZVI, according to some academic commentators and NGOs, revolve around a lack of research (Boxall et al. 2007, Nowack & Bucheli 2007). Laboratory based studies have started to improve this knowledge base but there is still a lack of field based data. One of the major aims of the NanoRem project is to address this gap by providing information from both laboratory and field trials.

While concerns have been voiced about the differences between micro- and nano-particles and the easier penetration by nanoparticles into human tissue (International Risk Governance Council 2006) the weight of evidence suggests the perceived risks are higher than the real risks, particularly in the case of iron nanoparticles. Additional research has been recommended to confirm the suspected low toxicity of nZVI to humans. Until this work has been undertaken and published, the use of nanoparticles within the natural environment is likely to be viewed as potentially risky.

This cautious approach has also been adopted by some major private sector corporations, perhaps reflecting a desire to avoid any adverse reputational impact. For example, the Du Pont Corporation have stated that they “would not consider using this [iron NP] technology at a Du Pont site until the end products of the reactions following injection, or following a spill, are determined and adequately assessed”. 

4 Perceived Risk from the UK Perspective


In the UK, following on from recommendations in a 2004 report by the Royal Society/ Royal Academy of Engineering (RS/RAE), there is a voluntary moratorium on the release of engineered nanoparticles to the environment. Although there has been no de facto prohibition of nanoremediation in the UK, the moratorium has acted as a barrier to the implementation of field trials.

In order to examine the general public’s view of nanoremediation, the Environment Agency organised a limited public consultation exercise using a focus group in the east of London (EA 2006) which identified three broad areas of concern:
  • Scientific uncertainties about the fate and transport of NPs once released into the natural environment and the limited availability of technical information, leading to a call for a precautionary approach;
  • A call for greater openness about knowns and unknowns, and even some scepticism about true motivation behind dialogue exercises;
  • The context for discussions of science, technology and risk; with questions raised about the constituencies supporting in and engaging in this debate and what their motivations might be. 

More recently a synthesis of reports on public views on nanomaterials in general from the UK (Sciencewise 2013) found that even though the majority of the population is not familiar with nanotechnology and nanomaterials, public views are largely positive towards developments in nanotechnologies and nanomaterials and their potential benefits, namely those with a clear social benefit such as in healthcare. However, it cautioned that there are major underlying public concerns about: 
  • Risk, safety and regulation linked to the level of uncertainty about toxicology, health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials.
  • Applications, equity, empowerment as the public consider trade-offs between potential benefits and risks of applications: applications that were perceived to contribute to a wider social good such as healthcare or environment were considerably more supported than cosmetics or other products with less clear social benefit.
  • Public engagement and transparency - more transparency about developments and more available information about products with nanomaterials are desired.


In summary, the current view at a European level remains cautious about nanotechnologies. Great promise is foreseen in the uptake of the technology, but there is concern that there are no clear guidelines for how health, safety and environment, nor material sustainability, concerns should be integrated into product design (EEA 2013).

5 NanoRem Activities

Process based remediation techniques seen as “new” within a particular jurisdiction have historically encountered significant market barriers and required verified field based performance data to gain widespread regulatory and market acceptance. It is not unusual for such evidence to be demanded by regulators and landowners for specific conditions encountered or perceived in their country. While this knowledge gap exists at the policy and regulatory level, society’s ability to foster appropriate use of nanotechnologies is hampered. It is largely in response to this that the NanoRem project is making a concerted effort to develop broad sustainability, risk and benefit appraisals for its nanoremediation applications, in consultation with leading stakeholder interests. In particular, Nanorem will:

Undertake fully documented field trials to establish the fate and transport of nanoparticles with the subsurface.

  • Undertake toxicity testing on both raw and weathered nanoparticles.
  • Undertake sustainability assessments, based on the NICOLE/SURF-UK guidelines, on one or more field applications of nanoparticles.
  • Widely disseminate the information to ensure that the research development and demonstration outputs meet end-user and regulatory requirements and that information and knowledge is shared widely across the EU.

6 Additional resources on the NanoRem Web Site

This thematic page summarises information provided by a chapter of the NanoRem report: 'A Risk/Benefit Appraisal for the Application of Nano-Scale Zero Valent Iron (nZVI) for the Remediation of Contaminated Sites'. The full report including additional information, detail and referencing can be downloaded from:  www.nanorem.eu/Displaynews.aspx?ID=525.

Additional summary information is also available on the following online pages:


Currently we have the following FAQ pages:





7 References

BOXALL, A.B.A., TIEDE, K. AND CHAUDHRY, Q. 2007 ‘Engineered nanomaterials in soils and water: How do they behave and could they pose a risk to human health?’, Nanomedicine, 2, 6, 919-927.


EUROPEAN ENVIRONMENT AGENCY (EEA) 2013 ‘Environment and human health’ Joint EEA-JRC report. EUR 25933 EN.

IRGC (International Risk Governance Council) White Paper N° 2, “Nanotechnology Risk Governance”, IRGC, Geneva 2006.  

Nowack, B.  2008 ‘Pollution prevention and treatment using nanotechnology’, Nanotechnology, 2, 1-15
NOWACK, B. AND BUCHELI, T.D. 2007 ‘Occurrence, behavior and effects of nanoparticles in the environment’, Environmental Pollution, 150, 1, 5-22.

ROYAL SOCIETY AND ROYAL ACADEMY OF ENGINEERING (RS/RAE) 2004 ‘Nanoscience and nanotechnologies:opportunities and uncertainties’


SCIENCEWISE 2013 ‘Public views on advanced materials: nanomaterials and graphene’ Version 1.3 March 2013 [Online]  


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Taking Nanotechnological Remediation Processes from Lab Scale to End User Applications for the Restoration of a Clean Environment.
This project has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement No. 309517
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