Latest UK findings call for caution, regulation, research

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July 30, 2004 –Commenting on a nanotechnology report released yesterday, Lord David Sainsbury, UK minister for science and innovation, said it is necessary with major technologies “to ensure that the debate takes place ‘upstream,’ as new areas emerge in the scientific and technological development process.”

Sainbury said that the government commissioned the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering to produce the study “to look at the possible ethical, health, safety and environmental questions that could be raised by this new technology.”

The much-anticipated report from the UK’s Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering addressed a wide range of nanotechnology-related disciplines. It stated that deliberately manufactured nanoparticles posed health and environmental concerns and various steps should be taken to mitigate risks.

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It also indicated that, given appropriate regulation, there was no justification for a moratorium on research as some activists have called for.

In a prepared statement released yesterday, Sainsbury thanked the two UK organizations for preparing the report.

He said that nanotechnology offered the potential to bring jobs and investment to the UK. He added that it could help address environmental and health concerns and improve communications and transportation technologies.

The report was commissioned in June 2003 by the Office of Science and Technology, part of the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry, which wanted an independent assessment of whether nanotechnology had raised or was likely to raise new issues that were not covered by current regulations.

Included in the 113-page report were the following recommendations:

· An interdisciplinary research center should be created to study the toxicity, epidemiology, persistence and bioaccumulation of manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes.

· The release of manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes into the environment should be avoided as far as possible until more is known about their environmental impacts. Factories and labs should treat manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes as if they were hazardous materials. The use of free manufactured nanoparticles in environmental applications such as remediation should be prohibited until more research has been conducted.

· Regulatory bodies should assess whether current regulations suffice or if new ones are required. Chemicals in the form of nanoparticles and nanotubes should be treated as new substances. In the case of consumer products, nanoparticle ingredients should undergo a full safety assessment.

Specifically, the report called for industry to submit information on microfine zinc oxide. Moreover, it called for manufacturers to publish ingredient lists that identify if manufactured nanoparticulate is used. It also called for research into the ethical and social implications of advanced nanoscale sensor devices.

The now notorious “grey goo” topic — a hypothetical scenario in which nanoscale devices self-replicate to cause environmental mayhem — was relegated to an appendix, where the report said, “We have heard no evidence to suggest that mechanical self-replicating nanomachines will be developed in the foreseeable future, and so would direct regulators at more pressing concerns…”

Lord Sainsbury said the government would formally respond to the study by the end of the year. An online summary of the findings and recommendations is available.


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