Nanotechnology offers many potential benefits, but its development must be guided by appropriate safety assessments and regulation to minimise any possible risks to people and the environment, according to a report published today (29 July 2004) by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.
The report was commissioned by the UK Government last year to consider current and future developments in nanotechnology. It identifies a range of potential benefits to be gained from nanoscience and nanotechnologies including new materials, more powerful computers and revolutionary medical techniques. The report recommends steps to realise these while minimising possible future uncertainties and risks.
Nanoscience and nanotechnologies involve the study and use of materials at an extremely small scale – at sizes of millionths of a millimetre – and exploit the fact that some materials have different properties at this ultra small scale from those at a larger scale.
These properties are currently exploited in the development of computer chips and electronic goods such as mobile phones and DVD players. In the future nanoscience and nanotechnologies may lead to cheaper and more efficient ways of purifying water and generating solar energy, and possible new methods of cleaning up contaminated ground. They may also deliver ways of targeting drugs to specific parts of the body, artificial implants for those with impaired hearing and eyesight, as well as tiny sensors which could be used for security, health screening or even to detect how fresh food is.
The report concludes that most nanotechnologies pose no new risks, but highlights uncertainties about the potential effects on human health and the environment of manufactured ‘nanoparticles’ and ‘nanotubes’ – ultra small pieces of material – if they are released.
Nanoparticles are already present in large numbers in the air from natural sources and due to combustion and vehicle exhaust emissions. Manufactured nanoparticles are currently used for applications such as ultra violet filters in sunscreens.
The report recommends that the UK Government should fund a programme of research to understand the effects of such particles on humans and the environment.
Professor Ann Dowling, chair of the working group that produced the report, said: “This report has confirmed the great potential of nanotechnologies. Most areas present no new health or safety risks, but where particles are concerned, size really does matter. Nanoparticles can behave quite differently from larger particles of the same material and this can be exploited in a number of exciting ways. But it is vital that we determine both the positive and negative effects they might have.”
Because of their novel chemical properties, the report recommends that nanoparticles and nanotubes should be treated as new chemicals under UK and European legislation, in order to trigger appropriate safety tests and clear labelling. Furthermore they should be approved – separately from chemicals in a larger form – by an independent scientific safety committee before they are permitted for use in consumer products such as cosmetics. Such approval has been given for the use of nanoparticles of titanium dioxide in sunscreens. The report also calls for industry to publish details of safety tests showing that the novel properties of nanoparticles have been taken into account.
Professor Dowling said: “There is a gap in the current regulation of nanoparticles. They have different properties from the same chemical in larger form, but currently their production does not trigger additional testing. It is important that the regulations are tightened up so that nanoparticles are assessed, both in terms of testing and labelling, as new chemicals.”
The report does not find any justification for imposing a ban on the production of nanoparticles. However, as a precautionary measure it recommends that releases to the environment be minimised until the effects are better understood. The Health and Safety Executive have issued interim guidance about nanoparticles in the workplace. The report recommends that the Health and Safety Executive should review existing regulations and consider setting lower exposure levels for manufactured nanoparticles, in order to provide the proper protection for workers in, for example, university laboratories.
The report recommends that the UK Government should initiate a properly funded public dialogue around the development of nanotechnologies at a stage when such discussions can inform key decisions about their development and before deeply entrenched or polarised positions appear.
Professor Dowling said: “Nanotechnologies clearly offer exciting possibilities which could benefit society as a whole. Our report separates the hype and hypothetical from the reality and now we need research in areas of uncertainty and appropriate regulation to ensure that nanotechnologies develop in a safe and socially acceptable way.”.
For more information on nanotechnology, click here or visit AZoNano, The A to Z of Nanotechnology.