Research laboratories, scientists and engineers have, for years, been promising the emergence of innovative, 'smart' capabilities for fabrics and textiles, based on advances in the field of nanotechnology. However, as these designs slowly become a reality in the commercial sense, the potential hazards and risk assessments surrounding them are also gaining a sharper focus.

The potential risks around nanotechnology largely have to do with the changing properties of substances when their particles are reduced to the nano-scale when applied as coatings to fabrics, or embedded within them.

Of course, the point is that they add additional durability, flexibility, waterproofing or anti-microbial power, compared to materials split into regular particles, but these nano-particles can migrate into consumers' bodies, potentially causing health risks.

The European Commission has been assessing European Union (EU) legislation as it relates to nanomaterials, which aims to safeguard workers, the general population, and the environment.

As it stands, a spokesperson for John Dalli, the EU Commissioner for health and consumer policy, indicates that despite these concerns, the review is likely conclude that existing legislation for consumer products adequately covers nanotechnology, and that the Commission will therefore probably not have to develop a new regulation on consumer exposure, although amendments of existing laws cannot be ruled out.

But that does not mean the textile industry can switch off from the debate though. Scientific wariness about nanotechnology remains acutely relevant to the sector, which - whether in the form of military, medical wear or social clothing - is increasingly manufacturing nanotech incorporated garments.

Over the past 12 months, for example, Spain's Universidad Carlos III de Madrid has designed an intelligent T-shirt that can remotely monitor the wearer's precise temperature, heart rate, activity level, position and location.

In India, conglomerate Shri Lakshmi Cotsyn, which specialises in hi-tech fabrics, has developed a vest embedded with sensors and an electronic chip which monitors respiration, body temperature, heartbeat, and blood pressure. It also has the capability to take an electrocardiogram (ECG) and send this data wirelessly to doctors or relatives via a dongle attached to a PC or a mobile phone. In addition, the vest contains GPS capabilities, allowing the wearer to be tracked and evacuated during an emergency.

"The highest risk, and concern, is considered to be associated with the presence or occurrence of free (non-bound) insoluble nanoparticles, either in a liquid dispersion or airborne dusts," said the Commission spokesperson. "This is a consideration that the designer should take into account."

The Commission is also, at the moment, scrutinising the potential risks around specific fibres such as carbon nanotubes.

"When carbon nanotubes have physical-chemical and bio-persistence characteristics similar to those of hazardous asbestos fibres, it was demonstrated that they can induce similar inflammatory reactions," said the spokesperson.

"Manufacturers of nanotubes should be aware that certain characteristics - length, rigidity, bio-persistence - may pose a risk and the possibility for chronic inflammation and mesothelioma induction and consequently should be considered in the safety evaluation. It would be wise for designers to take heed and propose nanomaterials with benign characteristics - benign not only in terms of exposure and toxicology, but also physical characteristics."

A key focus because of its popularity as a nano-device, should be on nano silver, which has antimicrobial properties and has been, so far, applied to socks and other apparel to prevent odour, along with silicon dioxide and titanium dioxide properties.

"Nano silver is a very effective biocide," said the Commission spokesperson. "Its use is increasing - consequently, the exposure of some subpopulations and of the environment could increase."

A conference held earlier this year by Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) confirmed earlier concerns on the nano silver issue.

"The properties of nano silver differ at the particle level from conventional silver ions," said Dr Peter Laux, acting head of the technology unit of the BfR's consumer product safety department. "The actions and effects of this are by some distance not sufficiently clear to admit its widespread use in everyday products. We also think that the broad use of nano silver can contribute to microbial resistance."

These concerns also extend to the merging field of embedded products - the use of nano-silver within fibres, or of nano-polymers, to make garments. "It's the same issue," said Laux. "There's the problem of abrasion. The particles may be released onto the skin or into sweat."

Involvement of regulatory authorities
Another key area of research within the textile industry at the moment is that of wearable electronics that comprise pre-packed electronic components interconnected by conductive fibres and enclosed through protective casing.

Researchers at The Centre for Research in Advanced Textiles (CReATe) at Nottingham Trent University in the UK are currently developing a semiconductor chip encased within a bundle of fibres, which creates an electronic yarn.

The electronic yarn is fully washable, while the enclosed semiconductor chip is extremely small and does not compromise the aesthetic appearance of the garment. Potential applications include embedded electronics devices for communications, whole body monitoring (ECG, temperature and humidity), heating, electronic tagging, active camouflage based and detection of harmful gases or radiation.

Given such advances, the textile industry would do well to strike up a close working relationship with regulatory and health and safety bodies, suggests Professor Tilak Dias, of CReATe.

"It is early days yet. Nanotechnology still really focuses on coatings applied to garments, [and the] nanofibre stage is not yet really commercially viable," he says.

"But with coatings there are issues around end of life, they get worn, and the chemicals are washed into water. When we are dealing with nanofibres that make up medical garments then the regulatory authorities will have to become involved."