Milk and honey await those who invest in nanotechnology. At least, that’s what many seem to believe. But what exactly is nanotechnology and is it all as promising as it sounds?
Products in which nanomaterials are incorporated are expected to have a total market value of 2 trillion euros by 2015. In the EU alone, nanotechnology directly provides 350,000 jobs, and that number is growing. With the EU being focused on economic growth, it is very keen on investing in nanoresearch. But with great possibilities come great potential risks. The long-term consequences for citizens and the environment are unclear.
A promising technology
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular scale. Nanomaterials show different properties from materials at larger dimensions. This enables the creation of new structures and devices that would have been unimaginable several decades ago. The potential benefits are enormous. Nanotechnology can be used in the production of solar panels and batteries to help provide cheap and clean energy. It can help purify drinking water and reduce pollution, protecting our environment.
Furthermore, nanotechnology could prove to be the next big step in medicine. Nanomaterials are used in the pharmaceutical industry, making drugs cheaper and more efficient and helping with the detection and treatment of diseases. Additionally, nanotechnology is mentioned in future medicinal uses to fight cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, prevent heart attacks and promote bone regeneration.
Finally, nanotechnology is considered by the European Commission to be of great economic importance, providing jobs and stimulating economic growth. In the current economic crisis, with Europe’s role in the world becoming less certain and with daunting challenges such as a greying population and environmental challenges ahead of us, technological advancements might be a spark of hope on the horizon.
Where Brussels comes into play
First of all, with other big players such as China investing in nanoresearch, the EU cannot afford to miss the bus on this one. It therefore has labelled nanotechnology as ‘KET’ – a Key Enabling Technology. KETs play an important role in achieving the goal of a knowledge-based economy that stimulates economic growth and creates jobs. The 6th and 7th Framework Programmes have already spent billions of euros on nanotechnology research and this will only increase with the Horizon 2020 programme.
Secondly, nanotechnology is already here. It is being used in the production of household products, foods, medicines and in other areas. At different levels of policy-making, different rules apply to nanotechnology, which has led to a hodgepodge of regulations. International regulators have failed to keep up with the speed with which nanotechnologies have developed. Thankfully, policymakers are now making great strides. Harmonization of definitions and regulations on nanotechnology is currently taking place in the European Union:
So, what’s the problem?
Because the characteristics of nanomaterials are unique, they are likely to cause new dangers. The problem is that it is unclear what exactly those risks might be. Knowledge about the dangers of nanomaterials has failed to keep up with the speed of innovation. Potential hazards for our health and the safety of the environment are possibly very large. With possible long-term consequences for human health and the environment, it is paramount that regulation keeps up with the latest developments. There are two key principles the EU should adhere to.
- The ‘precautionary principle’: There has to be proof that materials are safe to use before they are produced on a large scale. This ‘principle’ is generally accepted and should also apply to nanomaterials. There is currently a huge lack of knowledge regarding the possible risks. It is paramount that this is dealt with quickly so that there can be a cautious and thorough assessment of products before potentially dangerous material is produced on a large scale.
- ‘informed consent’ : Don’t people have the right to know what they are exposed to? In all fields of production, citizens have to be notified of the risks of products and they have to give their consent to use these products. But currently, even if there was transparency as to the use of nanomaterials, it will be difficult to make a well-informed decision. This is due to the lack of information on possible risks. Unfortunately, risk assessments are not up to scratch and uncertainties remain about the consequences for our long-term health. Risk assessments will have to improve drastically and all parties involved must be informed fully and properly to ensure that this problem is dealt with. A recent document of the Council of Europe states that “nanotechnology poses the greatest bioethical issue of informed consent for the 21st Century”.