Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Action urged over nanomaterials

Lycurgus cup (British Museum)
Nanomaterials date back to Roman times but are now made in quantity

Urgent regulatory action is needed on nano-scale materials widely used in industry, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has concluded.

The materials have so far shown no evidence of harm to people or the environment, the commission found.

However, it said there was a "major gap" in research about the risks posed by the materials, which are found in some 600 products globally.

The commission chair also said he would not recommend clothes with nanosilver.

"We are concerned about nanosilver in clothing getting into the environment because it could be potentially very damaging," Professor Sir John Lawton said.

Size matters?

The report focuses not on the tiny machines or electronic devices that nanotechnology has promised, but instead on the nano-sized materials that are making it into industry and consumer products.

At issue is the fact that at such tiny scales, materials behave differently than they do when they comprise larger objects.

Sir John cited fibres made from carbon nanotubes as an example. "Carbon nanofibres are fundamentally different from graphite," he said.

"That makes their behaviour in the environment and in the body very hard to predict."

However, the report stresses that the view of nanomaterials as a single category defined only by their size is limiting because different nanomaterials present markedly different potential risks.

"It is not the particle size or mode of production of a material that should concern us, but its functionality," the report states.

Despite repeated warnings, the establishment continues to lag behind emerging technologies
Andrew Maynard
Woodrow Wilson Center

The government has faced calls before from independent groups for stringent industry controls and further research into the environmental risks of nanomaterials.

But, the commission noted, the potential benefits of nanomaterials meant that the rise in their use had far outstripped the knowledge of the risks they might pose.

A recent survey for the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center found more than 600 consumer products that listed nanomaterials among their ingredients, and the number of patents for nanomaterials' use was in the thousands annually.

But the materials' novelty meant that long-term effects could not yet be studied, and their limited use to date precluded studies on their build-up in the environment.

The commission's study found no evidence of harm to people or the environment to date, but warned that tests must be standardised in order to ensure future monitoring was effective.

The commission added that it saw no reason to implement a blanket ban or moratorium on the development and implementation of nanomaterials, because of the societal benefits they represented, for example, to medicine and the renewable energy industry.

Instead, it urged co-operative, international action to establish tests for their dangers and regulatory oversight.

They also suggested changing the industrial reporting of the use of nanomaterials from voluntary to mandatory, with an industry "checklist" to flag up the products that posed the highest potential risk.

Fibres made of carbon nanotubes are of particular concern

Independent experts consulted for the study suggested that it may be as much as two decades before the toxicological and environmental data catch up to the innovation in nanomaterials.

"The report's bottom line is clear; the safe use of novel materials requires innovative solutions to minimising risks," said Andrew Maynard, chief adviser to the emerging nanotechnologies project at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"But despite repeated warnings, the establishment continues to lag behind emerging technologies.

"By focusing on how these materials behave, rather than what they look like, the commission have risen above circular discussions on size-related definitions, and brought the dialogue back to how certain materials might cause harm - and how this can be avoided," Professor Maynard added.

Silver lining

The commission noted a few prevalent nanomaterials that they believe to be of particular concern, including carbon nanofibres, whose constituent nanotubes have in preliminary laboratory experiments shown similar dangers to those of asbestos.

Another potential concern is nanoparticulate silver, which has made its name recently as a highly effective bacteria killer. It has been incorporated into fabrics to prevent the bacterial build-up that causes odours.

But as it is worn away during washing, nanosilver's bacteria-killing properties could wreak havoc on delicate ecosystems or municipal waste water systems that depend on bacteria.

Sir John said: "I wouldn't recommend nanosilver clothes and I wouldn't wear them myself.

"At the moment the concentrations are way below anything likely to do damage, but if it became common, it could lead to problems."

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