The NanoNextNL research programme was launched in 2011 with the objective of determining the possible applications, and the pros and cons of micro- and nanotechnology. As a result of developments in nanotechnology, nanoparticles are increasingly used in all kinds of products. The impact of these particles – including on public health – in the event they end up in drinking water sources is not clear. During the NanoNextNL closing symposium at KWR on 11 January 2017, the researchers presented the results of their work. Among other things, they discussed what the development of environmental analyses, resulting from the programme, means for the water sector. The presence of representatives from a variety of disciplines at the symposium – including many far beyond the water sector – reflected NanoNextNL’s wide range. Despite the differences, they agreed on one unanimous conclusion: it is extremely important that the design of new nanotechnology applications include an assessment of the risks involved. A clear message, particularly since products are possibly already being put on the market without an adequate understanding of their impact on humans, society and the environment.
The symposium was a forum which demonstrated that over a period of a few years, thanks to NanoNextNL, various environmental analyses have been developed and implemented. For example, Pim de Voogt (University of Amsterdam, KWR) showed how these analyses have detected the presence of low concentrations of fullerenes and nanogold in the environment. These particles were detected in drinking water, wastewater, surface water, and in the soil and the air. Nico van de Brink (Wageningen University), based on his research on earthworms, spoke about the uptake and fate of nanoparticles in the environment. The particles are in fact present in these bottom-dwellers. Bart Koelmans (Wageningen University) made a presentation about his modelling work on the interaction between nanoparticles, water and the soil. The research of Jan Hendriks (Radboud University Nijmegen) and his colleagues threw light on the uptake and effects of nanoparticles.
On the basis of experiments with bacteria, earthworms, zebrafish, as well as mouse and human cells, he demonstrated how the nanoparticles behave. The conclusion is that the particles interact with cell membranes and cell systems. The clearest effects were observed in earthworms, while the effects on other animals were more limited. From a scientific perspective, the mechanism involved is still unclear; the logical implication for water managers would be to look for any effects at ‘hotspots’.
Joris Quick (RIVM) emphasised in his presentation that the current risk assessment method should probably be adapted, because nanoparticles are so distinct from the usual compounds that they should be considered ‘emerging compounds’. Emile Cornelissen and Stefan Kools (both KWR) talked, respectively, about their research into nanoparticle removal techniques, and plastics in the environment. Lastly, Annemarie van Wezel (KWR) presented an overview of the entire NanoNextNL research programme and stressed the importance of risk management. In this context, Risk and Technology Assessment (RATA) provides a guide in the design of new applications and products.
In the symposium’s closing panel discussion Ron van der Oost (Waternet), Margot Beukers (NanoNextNL), Bert Bellert (RWS) and Gisele Peleman (de Watergroep) talked about the outcomes of NanoNext and what they mean for the water sector. It was agreed that the research programme had led to usable methods for the analysis of nanoparticles in the environment, including their behaviour and possible risks. Thanks to this knowledge, people working with nanotechnology, as early as the design phase, can become more aware of the particles’ possible impact. Given the numerous questions that remain unanswered, there is a need for follow-up research into micro- and nanotechnology which would accompany market developments.