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.”
View the report at www.nanotec.org.uk/finalReport.htm
NOTES FOR EDITORS 1. The report’s working group were: Prof Ann Dowling, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, University of Cambridge; Prof Roland Clift, Director of the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey; Dr Nicole Grobert, University of Oxford; Dame Deidre Hutton, Chair of the National Consumer Council; Dr Ray Oliver, Senior Science and Technology Associate in the Strategic Technology Group, ICI plc; Baroness Onora O’Neill, University of Cambridge; Prof John Pethica, Visiting Professor, Department of Materials, University of Oxford; Prof Nick Pidgeon, Director of the Centre for Environmental Risk, University of East Anglia; Jonathon Porritt, Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission and Programme Director of Forum for the Future; Prof John Ryan, Director of the Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration on Bionanotechnology, based at the University of Oxford; Prof Anthony Seaton, Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine, University of Aberdeen and Honorary Senior Consultant, Institute of Occupational Medicine, Edinburgh; Prof Saul Tendler, Head of the School of Pharmacy and Professor of Biophysical Chemistry, University of Nottingham; Prof Mark Welland, Director of the Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration in Nanotechnology, based at the University of Cambridge; Prof Roger Whatmore, Head of the Advanced Materials Department, Cranfield University.
2. The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. The Society’s objectives are to: • strengthen UK science by providing support to excellent individuals • fund excellent research to push back the frontiers of knowledge • attract and retain the best scientists • ensure the UK engages with the best science around the world • support science communication and education; and communicate and encourage dialogue with the public • provide the best independent advice nationally and internationally • promote scholarship and encourage research into the history of science
3. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship - comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers - provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
4. The Office of Science and Technology commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in July 2003 to carry out a study to: • define what is meant by nanoscience and nanotechnology; • summarise the current scientific knowledge on nanotechnology; • identify applications of nanotechnology, both currently and potentially, with indications of when they might be developed; • consider environmental, health and safety, ethical and social implications of the technology, both now and in the future; and • suggest areas where additional regulation should be considered.
5. Currently public awareness of nanotechnologies is very low. An awareness survey conducted as part of the study showed that only 29 per cent of people had heard of ‘nanotechnology’ and 19 per cent were able to offer a definition of the term.
For further information contact: For further information about this media release and copies of the report Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, (also available at www.nanotec.org.uk/finalReport) contact: Sue Windebank/Bob Ward, The Royal Society, on tel. 020-7451 2514/6. Jane Sutton/Claire McLoughlin, The Royal Academy of Engineering, on tel. 020-7227 0536/0510.
The above story is based on materials provided by Royal Society. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
Cite This Page: