UK launches nanotechnology reporting scheme to “assess risks”
By Ahmed ElAmin and Kirsty Barnes
27/09/2006 – UK research organisations, biopharmaceutical and food manufacturers, along with those in other industries are been asked to voluntarily provide any information on nanotechnologies they are working on, under a programme launched this week.
The new two-year scheme is part of the UK government’s bid to assess the risks that nanotechnology may pose to the public and could eventually lead to regulations restricting applications in certain sectors.
Nanotechnology has been touted as the next revolution in many industries, including food and drug manufacturing and packaging. However, concerns are being raised over the unknown consequences of digesting or injecting nano-scale particles designed to behave in specific way in the body.
In launching the voluntary reporting scheme, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it wanted to work toward assessing any potential risks posed by the products of nanotechnologies.
“There is currently very little information available on the potential risks that these materials may pose to the environment and human health,” Defra stated. “The scheme is designed, together with a programme of government research, to address this knowledge deficit.”
Michael Pitkethly, chairman of the UK’s Nanotechnologies Industry Association (NIA), said the scheme is important to ensuring that industry has appropriate controls in place for engineered materials at the nanoscale.
“The safety of these materials is of paramount importance to the NIA and the scheme aligns with the NIA’s advocacy of a measured and responsible approach and has our full support,” he stated.
Nanotechnology refers to the application of properties materials have at the atomic, molecular and macromolecular scale. A human hair is 80,000 nanometres (nm) wide, a red blood cell 7,000 nm wide, and a water molecule 0.3 nm wide.
Earlier this year the UK’s Council for Science and Technology (CST) – the UK government’s advisory body on science and technology policy issues – launched an independent review of its nanotechnology policy over concerns about the health and environmental risks.
The review will cover the government’s actions in the two years since their policy response to a study by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering that considered the possible health, social, ethical, safety and environmental questions that could be raised by nanotechnologies.
The CST said it plans to publish its report in spring 2007. The deadline for submissions is 2 October 2006.
The CST review also follows a report in May by the country’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), which said gaps existed in EU legislation in regulating the future uses of nanotechnology.
The gaps include those relating to particle size, the use of nano versions of already approved ingredients, and to packaging, according to the FSA’s legislative review of the food sector.
In addition Defra on 23 June completed a consultation on a proposed voluntary reporting scheme for engineered nanoscale materials.
Other regulators worldwide are also in the process of reviewing policy and regulations relating to the technology. This year Germany’s food safety risk assessment agency commissioned a study on on the risks of nanotechnological applications in food, cosmetics and other everyday items.
Incidentally, a public survey taken last year by the European Commission across the EU found widespread support for medical and industrial biotechnologies. While there is opposition in most European countries to agricultural biotechnologes, such as genetically-modified (GM) food, the European public mainly supports the development of nanotechnologies, pharmacogenetics and gene therapy, the survey found.
All three technologies “are perceived as useful to society and morally acceptable”, the Eurobarometer survey found. “Neither nanotechnology nor pharmcogenetics are perceived to be risky.”