UK Government outlines nanorisk research needs

The UK government has released a second report reviewing progress and identifying knowledge gaps about the potential environmental and health risks arising from engineered nanoparticles. This is a comprehensive document, breaking down the problem into five areas. The first of these is the question of how you detect and measure nanoparticles and the second considers the ways in which people and the environment might be exposed to nanoparticles. The third area concerns the assessment of the degree to which some nanoparticles might be toxic to humans, while the fourth area considers potential environmental impacts. Finally, a fifth section considers wider social and economic dimensions of nanotechnology.

The document represents, in part, a response to the very critical verdict on the UK government’s response on nanotoxicology given by the Council for Science and Technology last March. It isn’t, of course, able to address the fundamental criticism: that the Government didn’t act on the recommendation of the Royal Society and set up a coordinated programme of research into the toxicology and health and environmental effects of nanomaterials, with dedicated funding, but instead relied on an ad-hoc process of waiting for proposals to come in through peer review with opportunistic funding from a number of sources. The response from the Royal Society reflects the continuing frustration at opportunities lost: “The Government has recognised the huge potential of nanotechnology and recognised what needs to be done to ensure that advances are realised safely, but by their own admission progress has been slow in some areas. Given the wealth of expertise in UK universities and industries we should be further ahead.

That’s old ground now, of course, so perhaps it’s worth focusing on some of the positive outcomes reported in the report. Quite a lot of work has been carried out or at least started. In the area of nanoparticles in the environment, for example, the Natural Environment Research Council has funded more than £2.3 million worth of projects, in areas ranging from studies of the toxicity of nanoparticles to fish and other aquatic organisms, to studies of the fate of silicon dioxide nanoparticles from pharmaceutical and cosmetic formulations in wastewaters and of the effect of silver nanoparticles on natural bacterial populations.

For another view of the positives and negatives of this report, it’s interesting to see the response of nanoparticle expert Andrew Maynard. More shocking is the way this report is mendaciously misquoted in an article in the Daily Mail: Alert over the march of the ‘grey goo’ in nanotechnology Frankenfoods (via TNTlog).