Manufactured nanomaterials: categorization and approaches to hazard assessment

Thomas Gebel, Heidi Foth, Georg Damm, Alexius Freyberger, Peter Jürgen Kramer, Werner Lilienblum, Claudia Röhl, Thomas Schupp, Carsten Weiss, Klaus Michael Wollin, Jan Georg Hengstler

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

113 Scopus citations


Nanotechnology offers enormous potential for technological progress. Fortunately, early and intensive efforts have been invested in investigating toxicology and safety aspects of this new technology. However, despite there being more than 6,000 publications on nanotoxicology, some key questions still have to be answered and paradigms need to be challenged. Here, we present a view on the field of nanotoxicology to stimulate the discussion on major knowledge gaps and the critical appraisal of concepts or dogma. First, in the ongoing debate as to whether nanoparticles may harbour a specific toxicity due to their size, we support the view that there is at present no evidence of ‘nanospecific’ mechanisms of action; no step-change in hazard was observed so far for particles below 100 nm in one dimension. Therefore, it seems unjustified to consider all consumer products containing nanoparticles a priori as hazardous. Second, there is no evidence so far that fundamentally different biokinetics of nanoparticles would trigger toxicity. However, data are sparse whether nanoparticles may accumulate to an extent high enough to cause chronic adverse effects. To facilitate hazard assessment, we propose to group nanomaterials into three categories according to the route of exposure and mode of action, respectively: Category 1 comprises nanomaterials for which toxicity is mediated by the specific chemical properties of its components, such as released ions or functional groups on the surface. Nanomaterials belonging to this category have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, depending on their chemical identity. Category 2 focuses on rigid biopersistent respirable fibrous nanomaterials with a specific geometry and high aspect ratio (so-called WHO fibres). For these fibres, hazard assessment can be based on the experiences with asbestos. Category 3 focuses on respirable granular biodurable particles (GBP) which, after inhalation, may cause inflammation and secondary mutagenicity that may finally lead to lung cancer. After intravenous, oral or dermal exposure, nanoscaled GBPs investigated apparently did not show ‘nanospecific’ effects so far. Hazard assessment of GBPs may be based on the knowledge available for granular particles. In conclusion, we believe the proposed categorization system will facilitate future hazard assessments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2191-2211
Number of pages21
JournalArchives of Toxicology
Issue number12
StatePublished - 29 Nov 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Biodistribution
  • Fibrous nanomaterials
  • Genotoxicity
  • Granular biodurable nanoparticles
  • Nanoparticles
  • Nanotoxicology


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