A UK working group has completed its report on nanotechnology, concluding that it has great potential and poses few new risks. However, as much is still unknown about the effects of nanoparticles on human health and the environment, the report advocates caution and the classification of nanoparticles and nanotubes as new chemicals under UK and EU legislation.
The potential benefits to be gained from nanotechnology include new materials, more powerful computers and revolutionary medical techniques. One such product could be medical implants. Current implants, such as heart valves, are made from titanium and stainless steel alloys. These metal alloys can, however, wear out during the lifetime of a recipient. Nanocrystalline zirconium oxide (zirconia) is a hard, bio-corrosion resistant and bio-compatible alternative. Another potential medical application is new ways of targeting drugs to specific parts of the body.
As the report states, however, 'Whereas the potential health and environmental benefits of nanotechnologies have been welcomed, concerns have been expressed that the very properties that are being exploited by researchers and industry (such as high surface reactivity and ability to cross cell membranes) might have negative health and environmental impacts and, particularly, that they might result in greater toxicity.'
Indeed, almost all safety concerns expressed to the working group during their survey related to the potential impacts of manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes on the health and safety of humans, non-human biota and ecosystems.
With this in mind, the report recommends that Research Councils UK establish an interdisciplinary centre for research into the toxicity, epidemiology, persistence and bioaccumulation of manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes and their exposure pathways. The centre would also develop methodologies and instrumentation for monitoring nanoparticles and nanotubes in both built and natural environments, and would collaborate with organisations in Europe and beyond collating similar information.
The report also recommends that, until more is known about environmental impacts, the release of manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes into the environment should be avoided as far as possible.
The paper also advises that chemicals in the form of nanoparticles or nanotubes be treated as new substances under existing regulations and the future EU 'registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals ' (REACH) system.
The working group identified regulatory gaps, and therefore recommends that the European Commission review the adequacy of the current regulatory regime with respect to the introduction of nanoparticles into consumer products.
'This report has confirmed the great potential of nanotechnologies,' said Professor Ann Dowling, chair of the working group that produced it. '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.'
To access the report, please consult the following web address: