The safety of nanomaterials has received widespread media attention after a recent report from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
The Daily Mail refers to ‘toxic nanoparticles with asbestos-like properties’ and says that they could be highly dangerous. The Times headline reads that ‘Nanotechnology sparks fear for the future’ while The Guardian warns us to ‘be slightly afraid’. The BBC reports on a need for “urgent regulatory action” on nano-scale materials used in industry.
The report by the Royal Commission (an independent organisation which advises the government and public on environmental issues) found no current evidence of harm, but it did identify a lack of knowledge about nanomaterials, how they behave in the environment and their potential risk to human health. They call for a dedicated research programme to look at the risks and how to manage them in future. It is likely that it will be several years, possibly decades before the safety issues surrounding nanomaterials are understood completely.
Where did the news stories come from?
The Royal Commission’s report is called “Novel Materials in the Environment: The case of nanotechnology”.
The report focussed specifically on nanomaterials (defined as materials that are between 1 and 100 nm in at least one dimension and which exhibit novel properties). There are one million nanometres in a millimetre, so nanomaterials are extremely small.
The Commission examined evidence from more than 100 organisations on the use of nanotechnology, held a seminar and reviewed scientific literature about the possible toxicity of nanoparticles. In particular it looked at the possible ways in which these materials could pose a hazard to people and the environment.
What are nanomaterials?
Nanotechnology is used in many areas of modern life. This includes the manufacture of paints, fuel cells, batteries, fuel additives, catalysts, transistors, lasers and lighting, lubricants, integrated circuitry, medical implants, water purifying agents, self-cleaning windows, sunscreens and cosmetics, explosives, disinfectants, abrasives and food additives. The report says over 600 products containing nanomaterials are listed in global databases.
One reason for concern about nanomaterials is that as they are so small, they may interact with the environment and the living world in unexpected ways. Nanomaterials may behave differently than they do at larger scales and some of these properties are still emerging.
What where the overall findings of the report?
The researchers say that “nanomaterials are extremely diverse, exhibiting a wide variety of properties and functionalities. In many cases, materials in use have known or potential benefits and there is no particular reason to suspect that they will cause harm. We therefore consider that a blanket ban would be neither practicable nor proportionate”.
However, particular classes of nanomaterials have raised general concern amongst scientists because of their potential impact upon human and environmental health, including nanosilver, carbon nanotubes and Buckminsterfullerenes (tiny balls of carbon).
Regarding regulation and safety of nanoparticles, the Commission identified three main areas of concern:
- Lack of knowledge about the behaviour of certain nanomaterials once in the environment and how they may pose a risk to human health.
- That an element or substance may have significantly different properties in its nanoparticle form compared to that when in its whole form.
- That, in the future, newer versions of these nanoparticles may have slightly different functions and properties from the original bulk material and this would be difficult to regulate effectively.
There are no specific regulatory systems for nanomaterials in the UK or Europe. There are systems controlling their manufacture and disposal, such as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances). The Commission says that extensions of such systems could regulate these substances effectively.
What does the report recommend?
The Commission recommends new governance arrangements for nanotechnology, and says such an arrangement could be applied to other areas of technological development.
Their overall recommendations are:
- A focus on the properties and functions of specific nanomaterials rather than treating them all as a single group.
- Establishment of a targeted research programme to help assess and manage risk.
- To recognise uncertainties in this area and acknowledge that it will take time to understand more
How does this affect me?
At present, there is no evidence that nanoparticles cause harm and the Royal Commission concludes that there is not enough information to make a judgement about the safety of nanoparticles.
However, they also say that the lack of evidence on the long-term effects of nanoparticles on people and the wider environment is mainly due to the lack of knowledge about ‘so many aspects of their fate and toxicology’. The commission says that because of rapid technological change, new toxicology testing protocols, and coordinated research are needed.
A lengthy period of research into nanomaterials is ahead, and it will be some time before the uncertainty surrounding this issue can be resolved.
A Defra statement said:
“As with any new science, safety needs to be the number one priority. The Commission found no evidence of harm to health or the environment from nanomaterials, but the Government remains committed to researching their health and environmental impact. In particular ministers are pushing in Europe to ensure that effective regulation is in place. EU and UK reviews of existing legislation have concluded that the existing regulatory framework can be changed to extend to nanomaterials.”