In the field of nanotechnology, the devil is in the detail. That’s because the properties of nanomaterials depend not only on their composition, but also their size. A cluster of a few hundred atoms can have significantly different properties from a macroscopic lump of the same stuff, largely because at this scale materials start to play by the rules of the quantum world. 

At its most revolutionary, nanotechnology interfaces chemistry with physics, electrical engineering or biology in ways that present some amazing opportunities - but also some potential risks. No matter how well we understand the biochemistry or environmental speciation of bulk materials, simply changing its scale renders our knowledge incomplete. 

It’s already known that some nanoparticles - whether natural or synthetic - can have negative health effects if their use is not properly managed, and scientists working in the field have long recognised the need for adequate safety investigations to keep pace with the exploitation of the technology.

Businesses that use nanotechnology also want a clear regulatory framework for their products, because it provides a more secure market by underpinning customer confidence in the science. Indeed, survey after survey has shown that the public have a broadly positive attitude to the benefits of nanotechnology, as long as there is a coordinated effort to ensure that potential risks are adequately investigated. And of course, scientists themselves deserve to be safeguarded against unnecessary hazards in the laboratory. As with the rest of chemistry, managing risks sensibly allows us to reap enormous benefits from new science. 

Back in 2004, the UK’s Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering recommended that safety regulations be overhauled to account for these nano-uncertainties, and that a new, dedicated research centre should be established to study the environmental and human health effects of nanoparticles. The government’s response has been a succession of committees, reviews, and outright procrastination - last year the Council for Science and Technology openly criticised their lack of progress on the issue. 

Over the previous month, regulators in America and Europe have finally taken their first tentative steps towards proper regulation. Yet their programmes are utterly inadequate in many regards. 

The EU Commission’s Code of conduct for responsible nanoscience and nanotechnologies research is essentially a wish-list, which it is encouraging member states to turn into concrete regulations. The voluntary code of conduct suggests, for example, that nanoscience should be ’safe, ethical’ and ’meet the best scientific standards’. To call this banal would be generous. 

Meanwhile, the US Environmental Protection Agency has launched its Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program (NMSP) to gather data about the nanomaterials already used by industry. Once again, the programme is voluntary. What’s more, the NMSP still uses the Toxic Substances Control Act as a framework for its safety assessments, where no distinction is drawn between nano- and macro-scale materials - thus ignoring the outstanding reason why new regulations are needed in the first place. 

But there was also a glimmer of good news. America’s National Nanotechnology Initiative has set out a roadmap for the health and safety research needed in this area. Crucially, Strategy for Nanotechnology-Related Environmental, Health, and Safety Research  also specifies who will actually do the work, and backs up the plan with a decent budget. The move highlights the clear benefits of having a single nanotechnology programme with ring-fenced funding - something that other countries, including the UK, could learn much from. 

Mark Peplow, editor