What’s driving the nanotech revolution and what this means for safety

Nanotech development is an industrial revolution based on the control of matter on a scale smaller than one micrometre and the fabrication of incredibly tiny devices.

With nanotech, familiar products can be radically improved. Products that get reengineered using nanotech perform in unimagined ways: wounds heal faster with bandages that stay clean and don’t need to be changed; ultra light and ultra strong materials change the performance of every thing from golf clubs, golf balls, eye glasses and contact lenses.

The marketing mantra “new and improved” will no longer be hype. Nanotech’s growth will be phenomenal. For business, it’s going to be a race for survival. If your products are brand leaders today, there’s a real threat they may not be tomorrow. If you believe that a smart competitor could use nanotech in an innovative way to create a “category killer”-a new product that is so revolutionary and good that it wipes out the competition-you have no choice but to enter the nanotech race. A delayed or cautious start could be deadly for your business.

Business leaders know this is important and are determined to not allow the centre of nanotech research and development shift in such a way a way that competitors gain the advantage. Nanotech investment reports from leading industrialized nations show that competition is fierce. In 2004, China ranked 9th in world for its level of nanotech investment. In 2006, according to OECD estimates, China has moved it into 2nd place ahead of Japan, and closing the gap on U.S.

Governments and regulators will face huge challenges in protecting public health and safety. Leadership from government is needed sooner rather than later.

What needs to be done to protect the citizens of the world from potential harm? What do governments and regulators need to do?

Last week the U.S. government held its first public meeting focused exclusively on research needs and priorities for the environmental, health and safety risks of engineered nanoscale materials.

Chief Scientist for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology Dr. Andrew Maynard recommended that the federal government invest a minimum of $100 million over the next two years in targeted risk research “to lay a strong, science-based foundation for safe nanotechnology.”

Maynard’s said the U.S. government is investing more than $1 billion annually on nanotechnology research while their spending on nanotechnology risk research is only $11 million per year.

During the presentation Maynard mixed a powdered nano calcium and magnesium dietary supplement into a glass of water to help illustrate key risk research questions governments need to tackle:

    • What effect do airborne nanoparticles have on the lungs?
    • Do nanoparticles penetrate the skin?
    • What happens to nanoparticles in water?
    • How do they behave in the gastrointestinal tract?
    • What happens to nanoparticles when they are poured down a drain and enter the waste stream?

      Maynard says the answers to these questions are needed by regulatory agencies before workable plans can be developed to identify and reduce potential risks.

      Maynard also noted that government needs to

        • document what relevant risk research exists,
        • ensure that agencies responsible for oversight and related research are adequately funded, and
        • develop a robust, top-down research plan that can be implemented by the government and used for collaborations with industry and with researchers in other countries.

          Dr. Tony Myres, RSG Associate and Scientist Emeritus with Health Canada, notes that to proceed blindly with development on nanotech in the way that the chemical industry developed in the ’50s and ’60s would be a recipe for making mistakes whose consequences may not be easily undone. Perhaps, smart regulation could have prevented the hole in the ozone, Love Canal and many other similar disasters including some of the incidents of toxic chemicals in the food chain.

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