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Nanomaterials are chemical substances or materials that are manufactured and used at a very small scale (down to 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair). Nanomaterials are developed to exhibit novel characteristics (such as increased strength, chemical reactivity or conductivity) compared to the same material without nanoscale features.

Hundreds of products containing nanomaterials are already in use. Examples are batteries, coatings, anti-bacterial clothing etc. Analysts expect markets to grow to hundreds of billions of Euros by 2015. Nano innovation will be seen in many sectors including public health, employment and occupational safety and health, information society, industry, innovation, environment, energy, transport, security and space.

Nanomaterials have the potential to improve the quality of life and to contribute to industrial competitiveness in Europe. However, the new materials may also pose risks to the environment and raise health and safety concerns. These risks, and to what extent  they can be tackled by the existing risk assessment measures in the EU, have been the subject of several opinions of the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR). The overall conclusion so far is that, even though nanomaterials are not per se dangerous, there still is scientific uncertainty about the safety of nanomaterials in many aspects and therefore the safety assessment of the substances must be done on a case-by-case basis.

Information on nanotechnologies in general can be found on the Europa website on nanotechnologies.

Information on how EU regulation in general applies to nanomaterials can be found in the Commission Communication on Regulatory Aspects of Nanomaterials and in the Commission Staff Working Document.

In 2011, as part of the second review of regulatory aspects of nanomaterials (in preparation), DG Environment commissioned a study "Review of Environmental Legislation for the Regulatory Control of Nanomaterials" that was conducted by Milieu. The objective of the study was to review environmental legislation for waste, water and other relevant acts as regards their legal coverage of nanomaterials and, where possible, implementation on the ground. The second objective was to identify and describe legislative and implementation gaps in environmental legislation, including details on whether gaps relate to a lack of legal coverage, limitations in technical capacities or dependences on other legislation.

A second study looked in a more detailed way into the aspects of environmental exposure to nanomaterials. "Environmental Exposure to Nanomaterials – Data Scoping Study" compiled and evaluated available information on the exposure to nanomaterials in the EU, and investigated all potential sources of information from direct monitoring data to the necessary input required in modeling estimations. The reports cross-linked this information with current regulatory requirements under environmental legislation and provided a number of recommendations to improve the knowledge base on exposure, required for adequate risk assessment and management of nanomaterials.

There are some further thematic studies that touch on the emerging issue of nanomaterials and the environmental legislation, e.g. "Coherence of Waste legislation".