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Predicting accidental release of engineered nanomaterials to the environment


Challenges in distinguishing between natural and engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) and the lack of historical records on ENM accidents have hampered attempts to estimate the accidental release and associated environmental impacts of ENMs. Building on knowledge from the nuclear power industry, we provide an assessment of the likelihood of accidental release rates of ENMs within the next 10 and 30 years. We evaluate risk predictive methodology and compare the results with empirical evidence, which enables us to propose modelling approaches to estimate accidental release risk probabilities. Results from two independent modelling approaches based on either assigning 0.5% of reported accidents to ENM-releasing accidents (M1) or based on an evaluation of expert opinions (M2) correlate well and predict severe accidental release of 7% (M1) in the next 10 years and of 10% and 20% for M2 and M1, respectively, in the next 30 years. We discuss the relevance of these results in a regulatory context.

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Fig. 1: Accident probability predictions according to M1.
Fig. 2: Accident probability predictions according to M2.
Fig. 3: Probabilities of ENM release in the next 10 and 30 years based on M1 and M2.
Fig. 4: Probabilities of ENM accidental release level 1 in 10 and 30 years worldwide.

Data availability

The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

R scripts are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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We thank B. Giese, N. Müllner and S. Sholly for their help in conceptualizing the work and literature review during a workshop in Vienna at the beginning of the project, and B. Nowack and J. Kuenen for their review of initial versions of this study. C.O.H. acknowledges support by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under NSF Cooperative Agreement EF-0830093 and DBI-1266252, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT), and the collaborative networks enabled by the US–EU NanoEHS Communities of Research as supported jointly by the US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and the European Commission. We thank all anonymous experts at ETH, EAWAG, Agroscope, Uni Vienna, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Umweltforschung and the Building Department, Canton of Zurich for their evaluation of raw data. This research was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and was delivered in the project NanoFASE (Nanomaterial Fate and Speciation in the Environment) under grant agreement number 646002. S.H., S.L. and C.S. were also supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Institute Funding award.

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Authors and Affiliations



F.G. and R.K conceived and designed the study. F.K and B.P. provided insights from industry. F.G., B.D., J.-M.L., A.V., V.P.P., S.L. and S.H. developed and commented on the modelling approaches. S.V.-C., C.O.H. and C.S. provided context for future challenges for future accident probability estimations. F.G. and R.K. wrote and edited the paper, with contributions and support from all coauthors.

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Correspondence to Ralf Kaegi.

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Nature Nanotechnology thanks Mohammed Baalousha and Khara Grieger for their contribution to the peer review of this work

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Supplementary sections 1–5, Figs. 1–3, Tables 1–5 and references.

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Gottschalk, F., Debray, B., Klaessig, F. et al. Predicting accidental release of engineered nanomaterials to the environment. Nat. Nanotechnol. (2023).

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