The Royal Society(1) and the Royal Academy of Engineering(2) have expressed serious concern at the Government’s lack of progress in improving the understanding of the potential health and environmental impacts of free nanoparticles in a new report(3) published today (Tuesday, 24 October 2006).

Despite the growing number of products on the market containing these manufactured, ultra small substances, the report says that, “the Government’s approach to reducing the uncertainties around the health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials…has not been effective. Its reluctance to commit adequate funding or set a time table for achieving objectives is of serious concern.”

Uncertainties about the potential effects of nanoparticles on human health and the environment were highlighted in 2004 in a Government-commissioned report(4) undertaken by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering. Some materials in nanoparticulate form have special properties, different from those of the same material on a larger scale, which may create potential risks along with their benefits. The novel properties of nanoparticles are currently being exploited in products such as stain-resistant clothing, ‘anti-ageing’ creams and sunscreens.

Professor Ann Dowling, chair of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering working group on nanotechnologies, said: “The UK Government was recognised internationally as having taken the lead in encouraging the responsible development of nanotechnologies when it commissioned our 2004 report. So it is disappointing that the lack of progress on our recommendations means that this early advantage has been lost.

“Our 2004 report showed that most nanotechnologies posed no new safety risks. They may lead to many exciting applications such as new ways of targeting drugs to specific parts of the body, more efficient and cheaper ways of generating solar energy and tiny sensors which could be used for health screening and environmental monitoring. However, we did recommend that the Government instigate a programme of research to better understand both the positive and negative effects of free nanoparticles – one distinct type of nanotechnology. Unfortunately progress on this, so far, has been slow.

“Reducing the uncertainties concerning these substances is a vital step in ensuring nanotechnologies are well regulated technologies which inspire the confidence of both investors and the public. Notably the Government’s own regulators have concluded that they cannot determine whether current regulations are adequate until the knowledge gaps are addressed. The Government must ensure that this research happens urgently or risk detrimental consequences both for society and the economy.”

The academies’ report welcomed the Government’s support of a variety of public engagement initiatives on nanotechnologies.

Professor Dowling said: “We recognise that incorporating the results of public engagement activities into policy is not straight-forward, but we hope the Government will build on what has been learnt so far, and develop mechanisms for ensuring that outputs from such activity is taken into account in policy making.”

The Report can be read and downloaded by contacting:

Sue Windebank, Press and Public Relations
The Royal Society
Tel: 020 7451 2514/2516

Notes for editors

  1. The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. It responds to individual demand with selection by merit, not by field. The Society’s objectives are to:
  • strengthen UK science by providing support to excellent individuals;
  • fund excellent research to push back the frontiers of knowledge;
  • attract and retain the best scientists;
  • ensure the UK engages with the best science around the world;
  • support science communication and education; and communicate and encourage dialogue with the public;
  • provide the best independent advice nationally and internationally;
  • promote scholarship and encourage research into the history of science.
  1. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship - comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers - provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
  2. ‘Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties Two- year review of progess on Government actions: Joint academies’ response to the Council for Science and Technology’s call for evidence’ An electronic copy is available from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering’s press offices
  3. The Office of Science and Technology commissioned the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in July 2003 to carry out a study to:
  • define what is meant by nanoscience and nanotechnology;
  • summarise the current scientific knowledge on nanotechnology;
  • identify applications of nanotechnology, both currently and potentially, with indications of when they might be developed;
  • consider environmental, health and safety, ethical and social implications of the technology, both now and in the future; and
    suggest areas where additional regulation should be considered.