Nanotechnology is widely regarded as one of the key technologies of the 21st century and is predicted to become a €1 trillion industry within the next decade, if not before.
Given the cutting-edge nature of the technologies involved, the trouble is most of us find it difficult to understand what is really going on at a technical level. To make matters worse, science itself remains in the dark in a number of important areas, for example, the potential impacts nano-materials might have on human health and the environment. As with GM before it, where there is a lack of scientific understanding, adequate regulation becomes a central issue.
In June 2008, the European Commission released its long awaited review of existing EU legislation applicable to the regulation of nanotechnology. But can these old EU regulatory dogs really learn new tricks?
WHAT IS NANOTECHNOLOGY?
Nanotechnology and nanoscience (N&N) involve the study, manufacture, engineering or use of nano-sized and nano-structured material. The fact that one nanometre, the principal unit of measurement for the industry, is one-billionth of a metre gives some idea of the ultra-small scale at which N&N operates.
Since nano-materials are built at the molecular or even atomic level they are affected by quantum and other forces which may be irrelevant at larger scales. Crucially, the physical, chemical and biological properties of materials altered at a nano-scale may prove to be fundamentally different to the properties of unaltered bulk materials.
OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES
This ability to manipulate the properties of existing substances by altering their structure at a nano-level gives rise to a whole range of exciting commercial opportunities, so much so, N&N is often referred to as the 'new industrial revolution'.
Nano-materials are already used in a whole range of everyday products, such as cosmetics, sunscreens, textiles, electronic goods, catalytic converters and paints. More importantly, N&N is seen by some as our best hope of meeting the challenges of sustainable development, climate change and the looming energy crisis.
However, N&N has its fair share of critics. Very little is actually known about the effects of nano-material on human health and the environment. This knowledge vacuum provides a fertile ground for fears to take root. Current concerns over N&N range from the fairly reasoned through to the extreme, such as the end-of-the-world 'grey goo' scenario.1
Although some of these concerns verge on science fiction others, such as the similarities between the health risks posed by some forms of carbon nanotubes and asbestos fibres2, are based on robust scientific study.
As with GM and other cutting-edge technologies, a lack of understanding of actual risks poses a significant obstacle to successful commercialisation.
With the public's current interest in environmental issues, such as climate change and the negative impacts of chemicals on human health, the European Commission has placed the need for an 'integrated, safe and responsible approach' to N&N at the centre of its policy.3 The Commission, like many commentators, is acutely aware that, if N&N is to successfully develop in Europe, a greater understanding and better control of the possible health and environmental risks must be developed.