A new report from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies argues that existing health and safety agencies are unable to cope with the risk assessment, standard setting, and oversight challenges of advancing nanotechnology. The new report, Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology, says the nation needs a new agency to deal with the health and environmental impacts of these technically complex products promised by rapid 21st century scientific advances.

Nanotechnology involves working at the scale of single atoms and molecules. The U.S. government defines nanotechnology as “the way discoveries made at the nanoscale are put to work.” The nanoscale is roughly 1–100 nanometers. There are 25.4 million nanometers in an inch and 10 million nanometers in a centimeter.

Nanoscale materials often behave differently than materials with a larger structure do, even when the basic material (e.g., silver or carbon) is the same. Nanomaterials can have different chemical, physical, electrical, and biological characteristics. For example, an aluminum can is perfectly safe, but nano-sized aluminum is explosive.

The novel characteristics of nanomaterials mean that risk assessments developed for ordinary materials may be of limited use in determining the health and environmental risks (and thus product liability and mass tort risks) of the products of nanotechnology. A body of literature speculates about the potential for unusual health and environmental risks given that nanometer-scale particles can get to places in the environment and the human body that are inaccessible to larger particles. Nanomaterials have a much larger ratio of surface area to mass than ordinary materials do. It is at the surface of materials that biological and chemical reactions take place, and so some expect nanomaterials to be more reactive than bulk materials.

The report explains that almost all the current applications of nano are “passive,” in that they involve adding a nanomaterial to an ordinary material as a way of improving performance. For example, adding carbon nanotubes to rubber can greatly increase the toughness of the rubber without reducing its flexibility. Passive nanotechnology applications thus include using materials like carbon nanotubes, silver nanoparticles and porous nanomaterials to add functionality to products by nature of their physical and chemical form, rather than by how they respond to their environment.

Second generation, “active” nanostructures, typically involve nanometer-scale structures that change their behavior in response to changes in their environment. These changes might come about as a result of a mechanical force, a magnetic field, exposure to light, the presence of certain biological molecules or a host of other factors.

A good deal of research, involving a variety of different nanotechnologies, is being devoted to cancer detection and cure. One of the main goals of using nanotechnology for medical purposes, observes the report, is to create devices that can function inside the body and serve as drug delivery systems with specific targets. Another hot area: researchers are exploring the use of nanomaterials and nanotechnology techniques to vastly improve computers.

Even the first-generation nanotechnologies challenge traditional risk assessment methods, argues the report. Multiple characteristics contribute to the potential toxicity of many nanomaterials; they include not just mass or number of particles but also the shape of the particles, the electrical charge at the particle surface, the coating of the particle with another material and numerous other characteristics. Science has yet to determine which of these characteristics are most important under what circumstances.

After describing the current regulatory regime, the paper calls for a more unitary regulatory approach, including a new Department of Environmental and Consumer Protection to oversee product regulation, pollution control and monitoring, and technology assessment.