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November 18, 2008

UK RCEP Releases Latest Report on Nanotechnology

Lynn L. Bergeson

On November 12, 2008, the United Kingdom (UK) Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) published a report entitled Novel Materials in the Environment: The Case of Nanotechnology, which examines issues related to innovation in the materials sector and the challenges and benefits arising from the introduction of nanomaterials. According to RCEP, there is an “urgent need for more testing, extending existing governance arrangements and creating new arrangements concerning nanomaterials.”  The report was prompted by concerns about potential releases to the environment from industrial applications of metals and minerals that have not previously been widely used. The RCEP states that, as the majority of the evidence it received was almost entirely focused on manufactured nanomaterials, it decided to focus on this sector as an exemplar. The report includes recommendations on how to address “ignorance and uncertainty in this area, which could also be applied to other areas of fast-paced technological development.”

The RCEP’s recommendations reflect three main priorities:

  • Functionality: The need to focus on the properties and functionalities of specific nanomaterials as the key driver for understanding their behavior in organisms and the environment, rather than treating all materials in the size range as one single class;
  • Information: A directed and substantial research program on the properties and functionalities of nanomaterials must be established as a matter of urgency, to inform risk assessment and risk management strategies. One essential part of such a directed program will be the development of techniques that allow the presence of particular nanomaterials to be detected in the environment; and
  • Adaptive management: Government urgently needs to recognize 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.