Regulators move to ensure nanotech safety

Caution apparent in latest actions on both sides of the Atlantic

Nanotechnology is coming under increasing scrutiny from regulators amid nervousness about its potential to cause harm. The US House of Representatives passed legislation to strengthen the safety of the science.

"The promise of nanotechnology is enormous, but potential downsides need to be addressed from the beginning in a thorough, transparent process," said Bart Gordon, chairman of the House's Committee on Science and Technology, speaking after the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) Amendments Act of 2008 (HR 5940) was passed by a vote of 407 to six.

"We need to protect the public health and allay any safety concerns. The federal interagency nanotechnology research programme has not yet put in place a well-designed, adequately funded and effectively executed research programme ... HR 5940 addresses this deficiency." The initiative requires more transparency of nanotechnology projects for education public outreach and ethical, legal and other societal issues. In addition, it specifies that the NNI advisory panel must be a stand-alone committee and that subpanel members have qualifications in the ethical, legal, environmental and workforce issues supported by the NNI.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is launching a public dialogue on nanotechnology. Commissioner Stavros Dimas said, "The regulatory challenge is to ensure that society benefits from novel applications of nanotechnologies, while ensuring a high level of protection of health, safety and the environment and thereby fully applying the precautionary principle."

Kantha Shelke, president of Chicago-based food and nutrition think tank Corvus Blue, said nanotech held promise, but regulators were right to be cautious. "The implications of using nanomaterials in the next generation of foods are nothing short of amazing, but these materials have to be conclusively demonstrated to not pose any harm down the line to consumers and to handlers.

"However, it is important to remember that nature operates in the nanoscale and some methods to make engineered nanoscale materials may very well be relatively simple and harmless to all involved."

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