UK launches review of nanotechnology policy
part of a move to assess the implications of current developments
in the emerging science of tiny dimensions and its impact on the
Yesterday the UK Council for Science and Technology (CST) said it had been asked by government to review progress of its commitments on nanotechnology policy, and called for input from the public and industry, among others.
Nanotechnology has been touted as the next revolution in many industries, including food manufacturing. It is a sector for which the topic has become a hot consumer issue due to fears over the unknown consequences of digesting nano-scale particles designed to behave in specific way in the body.
The CST review follows similar moves in Germany where the Federal Institute of Risk Assessment (BfR) has commissioned the University of Stuttgart to conducta survey on the risks of nanotechnological applications in personal care, food and other everyday items, according to a report by the Nanoforum.
The UK research will be looking into issues relating to particle size, the use of nano versions of already approved ingredients, and to packaging.
In addition the government's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on 23 June completed a consultation on a proposed voluntary reporting scheme for engineered nanoscale materials that will also relate to the personal care industry.
Defra's proposed voluntary reporting scheme is part of the government's programme to build the evidence on any potential risks posed by nanotechnologies.
Other regulators worldwide are also in the process of reviewing policy and regulations relating to the technology.
The CST independent 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.
The CST wants comments on the extent to which the government has taken forward the commitments it agreed to in its response.
The report, "Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties", was issued two years ago. The government made its response in February 2005.
The CST will also be examining whether new issues have arisen since due to significant developments in nanoscience and nanotechnology.
"How the government is handling issues of nanotechnology and nanoscience will influence the UK's competitiveness in this rapidly growing field, and the public's confidence in government science policy," stated John Beringer, the scientist charged with leading the CST review.
"We will be taking a close look at what the government has done, whether it has responded quickly enough, and how well prepared it is for new developments in nanotechnology," he added.
The CST is the UK government's advisory body on science and technology policy issues. Members are appointed by the prime minister. The CST plans to publish its review in spring 2007. The deadline for submissions is 2 October 2006.
The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering report on nanotechnologies considered the possible health, social, ethical, safety and environmental questions that could be raised by nanotechnologies.
The scientific bodies stated that while nanotechnologies offer many benefits, more public debate is needed about their development. It called for research to address uncertainties about the health and environmental effects of nanoparticles - one area of nanotechnologies.
Among the 21 recommendations was a call for regulation to control exposure to nanoparticles.
A nanometre (nm) is one billionth of a metre. Industry is interested in the nanoscale because it is at this size that the properties of materials can be very different from those of the same material at a larger scale.
The report defines nanotechnologies as the design, characterisation, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling the shape and size at the nanometre scale.
The report recommends that manufactured free nanoparticles and nanotubes should be treated as new chemicals under UK and EU legislation, in order to trigger appropriate safety tests and clear labelling.
It also recommends that industry should publish details of safety tests showing that the novel properties of nanoparticles have been taken into account.
The government said it agrees that ingredients in the form of manufactured free nanoparticles should undergo a safety assessment by the relevant scientific advisory body before they are used in a consumer product.
A proposed EC regulation covering the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals, called REACH, is currently under consideration by the bloc's legislators.
Whilst any new legislation is being developed, at national or the EU level, the government said it will work with industry to restrict releases of nanoparticles into the environment.
The current use of free nanoparticles in consumer products is limited to a few cosmetic products. It is probable that in future they will be used in consumer areas that will include food and pharmaceuticals, as well as the cosemetics industry.
Government responded to the recommendation by saying it believes in consumers being able to make informed choices. No mention was made specifically for food products.
"Existing labelling requirements on cosmetic products would need to be revised to accommodate this," it said in response last year. "The feasibility of labelling needs to be fully investigated and we will work with the public and other interested parties to consider whether manufactured free nanoparticles contained in consumer products should be identified as such on lists of ingredients and under what circumstances."
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."
So far nanotechnology has made minor inroads in to the cosmetics industry and has been incorporated into sunscreen and anti-ageing products.
Although nanoparticles are said to increase the efficacity of such products, organisations such as the Royal Society continue to demand that industry makes public evidence proving that personal care formulations incorporating nanotechnology are safe.