UK Royal Commission calls for more safety measures for nanotechnology materials

November 2008

A new report by the UK's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) says that there is an urgent need for more testing, extending existing governance arrangements and creating new arrangements to control the development of nanomaterials [1].

The RCEP study focussed on nanomaterials as an exemplar of a rapidly expanding new technology. While the Commission found no evidence of harm to health or the environment from nanomaterials, it believes that the pace at which such new nanomaterials are being developed and marketed is beyond the capacity of existing testing and regulatory arrangements to control the potential environmental impacts adequately.

In evaluating potential risks, the Commission concluded that it is not the size of nanomaterials per se that is important, but their functionality, what they do and how they behave, that needs to be evaluated.

Nanomaterials are important in improving the performance of existing technologies or making new technologies possible. Many are involved in delivering significant improvements in healthcare, eg through the targeting of drug delivery systems.

Many are important in terms of meeting environmental challenges, eg in the development of cheaper or more efficient solar panels. Sir John Lawton, Chair of the Commission, said, “While we welcome action taken by Government and organisations such as the OECD to try to address some of the uncertainties around the environmental and human health impacts of nanomaterials, there is far more to do, not least as the rate of innovation in this sector far outstrips our capacity to respond to the risks.

There is an urgent need for more research and testing of nanomaterials. It will be necessary to extend the coverage within the European Union of the existing regulatory regime for chemicals (REACH). This must be taken forward as a matter of urgency. “We are also concerned that more sophisticated later-generation nanoproducts will raise issues which cannot be dealt with by treating them as chemicals or mixtures of chemicals.

Current testing arrangements and existing regulations are inadequate. The Commission strongly believes that new governance arrangements are vital to deal with the challenges posed by current and future innovation in this sector.”

The Royal Commission says that it "looked hard for evidence of nanomaterials causing harm to human health or to the environment, and found no such evidence. However, it is very early in the development of this technology, and the amount of testing has been relatively limited. We are aware that laboratory tests on some nanomaterials suggest that they have properties which could cause concern. This strengthens our case for an increase in the amount and type of testing to assess whether these theoretical risks are real, and to monitor their behaviour in the environment."

The Commission concluded that, on balance, there were no grounds for a blanket ban or moratorium on nanomaterials. The Commission’s recommendations reflect three main priorities:

  • Functionality: we need to focus on the properties and functionalities of specific nanomaterials as the key driver for understanding their behaviour in organisms and the environment, rather than treating all materials in the size range as one single class.
  • Information: a directed and substantial research programme on the properties and functionalities of nanomaterials must be established as a matter of urgency, in order to inform risk assessment and risk management strategies. One essential part of such a directed programme will be the development of techniques that allow the presence of particular nanomaterials to be detected in the environment.
  • Adaptive management: Government urgently needs to recognise the degree of ignorance and uncertainty in this area, and the time it will take to address these. Government needs to develop flexible and resilient forms of management that allow appropriate control of emergent technologies in general, and for nanomaterials in particular.


1. Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Novel Materials in the Environment: The case of nanotechnology. Norwich, The Stationery Office, November 2008. Cm 7468.

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