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experts comment on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report: Novel Materials in the Environment: The case of nanotechnology

The report from the influential RCEP set out the issues and concerns surrounding potential releases to the environment from the application of nanomaterials and novel nanotechnologies.

Prof Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said:

“The report provides an insightful perspective on what needs to be done if the benefits of novel materials—many of them the products of nanotechnology–are to be fully realized.

“The report’s bottom line is clear: The safe use of novel materials requires innovative solutions to minimizing risks. But despite repeated warnings, the establishment continues to lag behind emerging technologies. Addressing the Royal Commission’s recommendations will make major strides toward closing this gap.

“Advanced nanomaterials are underpinning solutions to critical challenges that include energy security, water purification and disease treatment. But their novel behaviour raises new challenges to assessing and managing possible risks. The successful use of these products of nanotechnology will depend on innovative approaches to ensuring safety which are not constrained by conventional paradigms and rigid thinking.

“The new study on novel materials from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution provides a compelling conceptual framework for addressing the potential downsides of advanced nanomaterials, and ensuring their safe and effective use.

“By focusing on how these materials behave, rather than what they look like, the Commission have risen above circular discussions on size-related definitions, and brought the dialogue back to how certain materials might cause harm—and how this can be avoided.

“The Commission also stresses the need to develop flexible risk management approaches for novel materials, instead of being restricted by a “business as usual” mentality. Despite a resistance to change in some quarters, now is the time to acknowledge that innovative solutions are needed to ensure the safe implementation of innovative technologies.

“As indicated by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report, a strategic research program is still needed urgently if progress is to be made. Since the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering highlighted the need for a targeted program of research into the potential impacts of engineered nanomaterials in 2004, progress has been both slow and disjointed. The Royal Commission call for directed and substantial research program underlines the urgency of taking action before it is too late, and the opportunity to fully enable innovative and sustainable advanced nanomaterials is lost.”

Prof Richard A.L. Jones, FRS, EPSRC Professorial Fellow and Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology at the University of Sheffield, said:

“As artificial nanoparticles begin to find their way into the environment, the research that’s going on in the UK and elsewhere to track what happens to them needs to be accelerated. It’s reassuring that the Royal Commission finds no evidence of harm to health or the environment arising from nanomaterials up to now, but if we are going to make the most of nanotechnology in areas like medicine and renewable energy we need to do the research to make sure problems don’t arise in the future.”

Dr James Wilsdon, Director of the Royal Society’s International Science Policy Centre, said:

“We have all been taken by surprise at the speed at which so many products containing nanomaterials have appeared on the shelves. This underlines the urgent need for more research into the effects these novel substances may have on human health and the environment. This is crucial so that regulation can be built on a proper understanding of risks. The Government has, by its own admission, recognised that it has made slow progress in this area.”

Philip Greenish, Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said:

“The Academy welcomes the RCEP’s report and notes that they have found no evidence to date of nanomaterials causing harm to human health or the environment and the Commission is correct to dismiss calls for a moratorium on the development of nanotechnology-enhanced products. It is not in the interests of any manufacturer to produce and sell products which may cause harm and the vast majority of companies using nanotechnologies act responsibly. Current regulatory systems and commercial pressures, especially for cosmetics, make it difficult for manufacturers to be entirely transparent about how their products work and the research that they have done to ensure their safety. Consequently, a wholesale review of the current regulatory systems is needed to allow more openness without compromising commercial confidentialities.”

See also our briefing to launch the report.

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