What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is a generic term used to describe the design, engineering, production and use of substances and materials at the nanoscale (1 nanometre representing 1 billionth of a metre).  To illustrate, one sheet of standard paper is approximately 100,000 nanometres thick and one nanometre is roughly how long a human fingernail will grow in 1 second.  Nanotechnology may use substances which are common in standard manufacturing processes, including as carbon, silver, copper and titanium.  However, when used in nanotechnology, these substances have a much greater surface area-to-mass ratio than units of the same substances used in standard manufacturing.  For example, according to Lloyds, if one were to break down a 1 centimetre cube of material into 1 nanometre particles, those nanoparticles would cover a surface 10 million times larger (approximately the size of a football pitch).  The increased surface area of nanoparticles and their greater susceptibility to sub-atomic physical forces means that they demonstrate significantly different properties to the same substances in greater bulk.  It is these properties which make nanotechnology such an important and innovative branch of science.

Nanosubstances are already widely used in hundreds if not thousands of everyday products.  For example, zinc oxide is used to absorb ultraviolet light in sunscreen, titanium dioxide is used to breakdown water and bacteria in self-cleaning windows, and carbon nanotubes are used to manufacture paint for the hulls of ships.  The potential applications, however, are far wider and scientists anticipate huge developments in the application of nanotechnology in fields as diverse as environmental science, medicine and computing.

What are the potential environmental risks of Nanotechnology?

One of the major challenges currently facing the commercial exploitation of nanotechnology is the general lack of understanding of the effects of nanoparticles upon the environment and human health.  Put simply, the development in nanotechnology has advanced much faster than research into the potential risks which it may pose.

Nanoparticles are persistent, which means that once released into the environment, it is difficult to remove them.  Given their size, it is also difficult to prevent them from passing into soil or groundwater, or from being absorbed, inhaled or ingested by humans, animals or other organisms.

How has Nanotechnology been regulated by the law in the UK?

Nanotechnology is a relatively recent and developing science and, currently, there is no custom-designed framework regime for the environmental regulation of nanotechnology applying in the UK.  Instead, nanotechnology may be regulated under several different regimes, including:

  • REACH (which requires the registration and evaluation of chemicals and provides for their authorisation and restriction);
  • Environmental Permitting (which, inter alia, prohibits the release of harmful substances into groundwater without a permit; and
  • Health and Safety at Work (which, for example, requires that employers assess the risk posed to employees from exposure to hazardous substances).

However, none of these regimes provide a perfect fit for nanotechnology.  For example, without further research into the effects of nanosubstances, it is impossible to confirm whether and to what extent they are harmful or hazardous.  Similarly, REACH was designed to regulate chemicals in their bulk quantities and the safety assessments which underpin that regime do not adequately take account of the fact that substances may exhibit different properties and characteristics at nano-level.

By contrast, France, Belgium and Denmark each have nanomaterials registers, which require manufacturers and importers of nanomaterials to register these substances

What have been the recent developments regarding nanotechnology regulation at EU level?

In recent years, EU Regulations have been enacted at sectoral level which specifically refer to nanotechnology.  For example, the manufacturers of cosmeticsbiocides and food are now required to indicate the presence of nanomaterials in their products by placing the word “nano” in brackets after the substance in the list of ingredients.  However, it is noteworthy that the precise definition of “nanomaterials” varies between each of these sectors.  This reflects the fact that “nanotechnology” is a generic term capable of being subject to various interpretations.

However, in December 2014, the EU Commission cast doubt on the likelihood of an EU-wide register (similar to those in France, Belgium and Denmark) being established at a meeting of the Competent Authority Group on Nanomaterials.  The Commission contended that the French register does not include any information on specific consumer products containing nanomaterials.  Additionally, the Commission considered that full coverage of all nanosubstances and mixtures containing nanosubstances would be difficult to achieve and that, whilst there could be exemptions, it may be difficult to justify why some categories of product were exempted whilst others were not.  Furthermore, the Commission noted that 62% of the substances notified to the French register in 2013 were already covered by REACH registrations.  Detractors have pointed out that this last argument overlooks the fact that nanomaterials may exhibit different properties to their bulk equivalents.

Conclusion

As with so many other emerging technologies (for example, unconventional hydrocarbon extraction), governments walk a difficult line.  On the one hand, they cannot ignore the legitimate concerns of their citizens in respect of technology which may have a wide-ranging environmental impact but on which their may be limited reliable data.  On the other hand, any government would be reluctant to stifle innovation and investment (thereby adversely affecting employment and the economy) by over-regulating a nascent industry.  Clearly, nanotechnology is here to stay and to reap the greatest rewards from it, the UK will need to regulate it both effectively and efficiently.