There is still more ignorance than knowledge
Nanotechnology is already here and used in hundreds of everyday products from food packaging to computer keyboards.
The manipulation of materials on a nano-scale (a nanometre is a millonth of a millimetre or about one eighty thousandth the size of a human hair), enables them to take on new properties compared to their larger form. For example, UV filters used in suncreens produced in tiny nano form become clear rather than white when compared to their larger form.
But away from the buzz of excitement that often surrounds a new technology there have been real concerns about the risk and hazards these new materials present to both humans and the environment. The early criticism from NGOs has focused not necessarily on the technology itself but the ways in which it is being used and the lack of government regulation and risk assessment.
Much of that concern still remains. A new report from Landmark Europe, a PR agency, surveyed stakeholders across the EU and found that knowledge and understanding of nanotechnology even amongst well-informed groups was low. There was scepticism about the current regulations and support for tougher labelling rules on products that were ingested or applied to the body, i.e. food, drink, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
A Friends of the Earth report last year found that untested nanotechnology was being used in more than 100 food products and packaging including; nutritional supplements, flavour and colour additives, cling wrap and chemicals used in agriculture. It said existing regulations in the US did not require testing or labelling for nanomaterials when they were created from existing approved chemicals, despite major differences in potential toxicity.
'Nanotechnology can be very dangerous when used in food,' said report co-author Dr Rye Senjen. 'Early scientific evidence indicates that some nanomaterials produce free radicals which destroy or mutate DNA and can cause damage to the liver and kidneys.'
There have also been strong concerns expressed about the widespread use of nanosilver and the use of nanotechnologies in suncreen.
Suncreen manufacturers are adding nanoparticles to make sun-blocking ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide rub on clear instead of white. These nanoparticles can pass through human skin into the blood stream and then enter the brain, heart or liver. No-one fully understands yet what, if any, impact they will have once inside the human body.
In the case of nanosilver the concern from NGOs is that silver, a useful anti-bacterial agent, once scaled to nano size is far more potent. But again, researchers don't know enough about the effect that potency can have on human health.
Despite the concerns, nanosilver has still become one of the most commonly used nanomaterials in consumer products, predominately as a bactericide in kitchen crockery, cosmetics and even children’s toys.
'Major corporations are putting nano-silver into a wide variety of consumer products with virtually no oversight, and there are potentially serious health consequences as a result,' said Friends of the Earth health campaigner Ian Illuminato.
Despite the significant potential of nanotechnology the public debate has actually been rather quiet. The UK has been running a rather low-key public consultation in advance of a planned strategy in February 2010. NGOs and academics worry that the lack of knowledge, as shown by the Landmark Europe survey, is allowing nanotechnology to spread without the necessary regulation.
In addition, they see that safe or positive technologies such as the use of nanosilver as coatings for medical devices or as wound care for severe burns victims are already getting tarnished by what is being perceived as poor regulation.
'As always the regulation is trailing behind the knowledge,' said Professor Vyvyan Howard, from the University of Ulster. 'We've never been exposed to these types of nano particles with high atomic numbers (metals like nanosilver) so we don't yet know all the hazards which we're researching.
'I don't think we should expose the whole world to something and then realise later that we shouldn't have. Some of the hazards may be illusionary but some may not,' he added.
GMWatch co-editor Claire Robinson agreed. 'The industries that are already using nanotechnology, for example, in food, packaging and cosmetics, are way ahead of the regulators. It’s likely that we are storing up problems for the future by prematurely implementing a technology we know so little about,' she said.
'Members of the public who know about GM often haven’t heard of nanotechnology. But just as with GM, the application of nanotechnology is racing ahead of the health and safety research, which is still in its infancy,' she said.
However, Professor Howard pointed out, unlike GM, there was already a substantial body of research about the hazards of small particles on human health. 'They're definitely more engaged in the debate than the GM crowd were but then this is research that couldn't just be sidestepped,' he said.
EU gets tough?
While the technology may be ahead of the research there are indications that, at a European level at least, there is a willingness to take a tough stance.
In what Green MEP Caroline Lucas called a 'radical departure' from previous positions, the European Parliament voted in March 2009 to introduce new rules on nanomaterials in cosmetics. Any cosmetic containing nanomaterials will have to list the ingredient on product packaging, followed by the word ‘nano’ in brackets.
But labelling on its own is not enough. What campaigners and scientists like Professor Howard want is tougher regulation from policymakers.
Earlier this year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) warned that current toxicological tests on nanomaterials used in food products and packaging were inadaquate.
EFSA also pointed out that the current risk assessments were, ‘likely to be subject to a high degree of uncertainty’, and called for more research on the toxicity of nanoparticles in the body.
'In the absence of proper safety regulations, consumers are being left in the dark about the products they are consuming and are unknowingly putting their health and the environment at risk,' said Friends of the Earth’s Senior Food Campaigner, Clare Oxborrow.
'Europeans should not be exposed to potentially toxic materials in their food and food packaging until proper regulations are in place to ensure their safety.
'Policy-makers must stop claiming that existing regulatory frameworks are adequate to deal with the emerging science of nanotechnology and urgently address the gaps in food safety laws,' she said.