Most nanotechnologies pose no new risks to human health or the environment, according to a report published at the end of July by the UK's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (

The report, which is the first of its kind to address the potential opportunities and risks of nanotechnology, does however highlight uncertainties surrounding nanoparticles. Although nanoparticles from natural sources, combustion, and vehicle exhausts are already abundant in the environment, manufactured nanoparticles should be treated with care until more is known about their possible toxicity, says the report. While the working group of experts comes down heavily against any sort of moratorium on research or usage, such as the blanket ban suggested by ETC Group or Greenpeace's proposed limit on aerosol-form nanoparticles, they do urge caution. The report recommends that manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes should be treated as hazardous, and their release into the environment avoided as far as possible. The working group also recommends that the Health and Safety Executive, which oversees safety in the workplace, review its regulations for manufactured nanoparticles, in particular for manufacturers and university laboratories.

Nanoparticles and nanotubes should also be treated as new chemicals under UK and European legislation and be approved by an independent scientific safety committee before use in consumer products. Their use, particularly in cosmetics and food, should be clearly labeled. Where products containing nanoparticles are on the market, the report calls for industry to make public the details of their safety tests showing that the novel properties of nanoparticles have been taken into account. “There is a gap in the current regulation of nanoparticles,” says Ann Dowling, chair of the working group. “They have different properties from the same chemical in larger form, but currently their production does not trigger additional testing. It is important that the regulations are tightened up so that nanoparticles are assessed, both in terms of testing and labeling, as new chemicals.”

To address potential hazards and risks in a systematic fashion, the report recommends that the UK government establish an interdisciplinary research center focusing on toxicity, epidemiology, persistence, and bioaccumulation of manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes. A public dialog should also be funded to engender a debate on the direction of developments in nanoscience and nanotechnology.

If the recommendations of the UK report are taken on board, there is the chance for scientists to demonstrate just how responsibly they can develop a new technology. What awareness the general public do already have about nanotechnology is, in the main part, positive and enthusiastic. Now is the time to build on that, be open about uncertainties and clear on how they are being dealt with, dissociate hype from reality, and address legitimate concerns about the governance of this technology and how it can best be used.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00371-2