Nanotechnology needs 'urgent' testing and regulation to mitigate possible environmental damage, according to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP), a group of scientists who advise the UK government on environmental issues, published the Novel materials in the environment: The case of nanotechnology report on Wednesday. In the report, the commissioners urged the testing and regulation of nanomaterials to prevent possible public and environmental health damage.
In a statement, the RCEP said that, while it had found no evidence that nanotechnology materials could harm people's health or the environment, the pace of nanomaterial development and marketing "is beyond the capacity of existing testing and regulatory arrangements to control the potential environmental impacts adequately".
"There is an urgent need for more research and testing of nanomaterials," said RCEP chair Sir John Lawton. "We are also concerned that more sophisticated, later-generation nanoproducts will raise issues which cannot be dealt with by treating them as chemicals or mixtures of chemicals. Current testing arrangements and existing regulations are inadequate. The [RCEP] strongly believes that new governance arrangements are vital to deal with the challenges posed by current and future innovation in this sector."
In the report the commissioners wrote that they "are acutely aware of past instances where new chemicals and products, originally thought to be entirely benign, turned out to have very high environmental and public health costs".
Asbestos for insulation, chlorofluorocarbons for refrigeration, and tetra-ethyl lead in petrol were all used in the report as examples of materials which were initially thought harmless but later revealed to have public health costs.
The Institute of Nanotechnology, a UK-based charity which promotes nanotechnology, said that there may be risks from some engineered nanoparticles. Carbon nanotubes, a kind of nanoparticle, have asbestos-like features. Risks associated with carbon nanotubes could be mitigated by binding them in a matrix such as a polymer, said the institute.
"The body has limited ways of dealing with long and thin fibres," Ottilia Saxl, chief executive of the Institute of Nanotechnology, told ZDNet UK on Wednesday. "Carbon nanotubes can resemble asbestos and, when inhaled in quantity, may cause inflammation and cancer. However, if you bind carbon nanotubes into a matrix, they are not available for inhalation, and should not pose a risk to the same degree."
Saxl said there was a need for government to specify standard testing procedures for companies producing any product which contains nanoparticles. She added that companies should also be required to accurately label their products, in order to provide the public with enough knowledge and information to inform their behaviour.
The chief executive said regulation needed to be appropriate, so nanotechnologies could be developed while protecting the public from unwarranted risk.
"We would not have planes in the sky or cars on the road if a regulatory framework said we had to limit the production of nanoparticles," said Saxl, referring to exhaust emissions. "But we have to be clear which particles might cause problems and behave accordingly."
Saxl said that regulation could be useful for workplace environments where nanoparticles are made or used in quantity. Engineered nanoparticles to be used in consumer products should be subject to standardised toxicity tests, preferably in vitro, and regulatory constraints placed on the use of those that are not considered to meet the safety standards, said the chief executive.