Nanotechnology: Transatlantic Regulation Required
Linda Breggin et al. | Chatham House | September 2009
From ketchup to facial creams, we face a silent revolution in industrial society at the nano-level (one billionth of a meter). Nanotechnologies have entered our daily lives as ingredients in all sorts of products from foodstuffs to cosmetics to chemicals. They are also used in information technology and energy storage. To date, however, the risks nano materials pose for health and environment are little known. Hence the United States and Europe, as leaders in the field of nanotechnologies, are called upon to pioneer a regulatory approach to these new substances. Differences in legislative cultures and the perceptions of risk on both sides of the Atlantic turn this task into a challenge.
In the United States and Europe, nano substances are broadly regulated in terms of the products they are used in, for example food, cosmetics and chemicals. In general, regulators expand existing legislative frameworks, rather than create new rules to deal with nano materials specifically. It is questionable whether this approach will suffice in the future, in face of rapid technological progress and the swift commercialization of nano products. Diverging guidelines render it difficult for multinational corporations to engage in business on both sides of the Atlantic to an equal extent. Differences in consumer risk perception can damage trade severely, as the controversy surrounding hormone-treated beef and genetically modified food have amply demonstrated.
Experts agree that while a harmonization of regulations in the transatlantic realm is highly desirable, it first and foremost necessitates the reaching of international accords. There is a need to define what precisely constitutes nano material. New methods have to be developed to test its safety in applications. The OSCE would provide an ideal forum for the debate on internationally standardized guidelines. However, developing countries, which also have an interest in promoting their own nanotechnology industries, must be included to a greater extent in these efforts. This would call for a strengthening of the role of international governance bodies such as the United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Health Organization. There is a great need for much more investment in basic research, since the commercial applications of nano materials far exceed our knowledge of their properties with regard to environment and health risks. National and international regulatory bodies in this context will be faced with the difficulty of drawing qualified scientific personnel away from the more profitable private sector.
This summary was prepared by the Atlantic Community editorial team from "Securing the Promise of Nanotechnologies: Toward Transatlantic Regulatory Cooperation" published here by Chatham House.