The breakneck pace at which products with altered molecules are making their way to store shelves has scientists worried that governments around the world aren't doing enough to ensure that the new technology is safe for people and the environment.
In Canada, a blue-ribbon panel of 15 nanotechnology experts warned the federal government last summer that action is "urgently" needed to assess the potential risks of these tiny particles, but Health Canada has yet to respond to their report.
There are no nanomaterial-specific regulations in effect in Canada. As it stands, Ottawa doesn't even have a list of nanomaterials that have been developed or are contained in more than 800 products already being hawked to consumers.
And new patents and products are being introduced each week.
"Fundamentally, we don't have enough research or resources invested in the assessment of nanomaterials from a regulatory perspective," Pekka Sinervo, chairman of the Council of Canadian Academies panel, told the Canadian Press in an interview.
"Some nanomaterials are actually quite benign and are useful. Others present an unknown, and in some cases a potentially significant risk of harm."
Potential benefits are known; problems are less clear
If developed safely, nanomaterials — made by the almost mythical practice of manipulating atomic and molecular-sized matter — could someday revolutionize the economy and vastly improve our quality of life.
The tiny particles are being used in everything from anti-bacterial ceiling paint to tooth paste that does a better job of whitening teeth. There are bandages chemically treated to help speed healing and cosmetics altered to better prevent wrinkles.
But researchers don't know much about how the particles affect humans or animals, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat or how they break down in nature over time.
At least one preliminary study has suggested that some forms of carbon nanotubes pile up in the body and can act like cancer-causing asbestos. Some nanoparticles generate oxidants, which can react with chemicals in cells and can even alter DNA.
Canada doesn't even have a standard way of measuring these materials, which can be 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Such standards are necessary to determine their effects on workers, consumers and the environment.
Other countries face the same knowledge gap.
Research outpacing risk assessment
In a report last month the U.S. National Research Council blasted Washington for not adequately dealing with the health and environmental impacts of nanomaterials. The report suggests that without more research, the public may not accept such products. Businesses joined environmental groups in quickly calling on the U.S. government to develop clear rules for the emerging technology.
"The NRC report lends all the more urgency to our coalition's call for the independent development of a comprehensive road map to guide federal research on the environmental, health and safety implications of nanotechnology," says the statement signed by chemical giant DuPont, the NanoBusiness Alliance, the Environmental Defense Fund and others.
In Great Britain, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution issued a report that said while there is no evidence that nanomaterials have harmed people or the environment, more research is needed to assess their safety. The commission noted that the development of nanomaterials has far outpaced the evaluation of the risks they may pose.
Canadian experts have recommended that the federal government toughen its existing regulatory system to deal with the unique challenges posed by nanotechnology.
They say Ottawa should create a special regulatory classification for nanomaterials and change standards to make it easier to trigger reviews of their health and environmental effects.
The Council of Canadian Academies panel said Canada should also fund more research, including bolstering the ability of Health Canada and Environment Canada scientists to put safety issues under the microscope.
No distinct health regulations for nanotech in Canada
"We have to take first steps toward getting our arms around the problem. And it is the government that actually needs to take these steps. Nobody else is going to do this," says Sinervo, the former dean of the arts and science faculty at the University of Toronto.
Health Canada declined interview requests on the safety challenges posed by nanotechnology.
A department spokesman forwarded an email response that states that the federal government recognizes that a balanced, stewardship approach is needed.
"Regulating products to ensure the health and safety of Canadians and the environment is a priority for Health Canada," the statement says.
"Currently, the department is using the existing legislative and regulatory frameworks to regulate applications of nanotechnology, but it is recognized that new approaches and new policies may be necessary in the future to keep pace with the advances in this area."
Canadians should take heart that experts around the world are looking into these issues and that governments and international organizations are working together to share information, says Lori Sheremeta, a lawyer who investigates the social implications of new technologies for the National Institute of Nanotechnology in Edmonton.
Sheremeta contends that there is no reason to stop or slow development of nanotechnologies as long as Canada puts more effort and money into answering the basic question: Is it safe to introduce these technologies into society?
"Government labs have been underfunded and they have been cut and cut and cut and cut" over the past 15 years, she says.
"The expertise has been eroded from the lab system and more money needs to be targeted to that particular task — ensuring public safety."
Industry continues to grow
As Ottawa ponders how to regulate nanotechnology, the industry continues to expand.
Market experts predict that nanotechnology will be worth $1 trillion a year globally by 2020 and say Canada should be trying to carve out a 10 per cent slice of that pie. Canadian researchers at federal facilities, universities and private companies have been spending more than $100 million a year on projects that could lead to new or improved commercial products.
Canada's main competitors include the United States, Japan, Germany and China.
This year, the Canadian National Research Council announced new projects, including research into using nanotechnology to make cheaper, efficient solar cells and a new cryptography system to better safeguard electronic financial transactions and communications.
Pierre Coulombe, president of the council, said the intent is to rapidly transfer knowledge from the research lab to industry. While the council is not a regulatory agency, safety is a key factor in their work, he said.
There are also proposals under review for research projects into nanosafety that could be funded next fiscal year, if approved by Ottawa.
"We have a responsibility, as scientists, to develop a strategy to mitigate any risks," Coloumbe said.
The real challenge for Canada is to establish a workable regulatory system for nanomaterials that won't hobble research and the development of new products.
How cautious should the government be?
"If we take radical steps to proactively regulate when we don't know if we have substantially higher risks with the materials, we really stand to damage and limit new developments in the area that could be of huge potential value," Sheremeta says.
Scientists, including the nanotechnology panel, suggest Ottawa must be open with the public about its policy-making decisions and put the safety question directly to Canadians.
If the federal government fails to be upfront and consult with consumers about safety, a backlash against nanotechnology could develop.
"I think it is important to convey to consumers the concerns," Sinervo says. "I think it is important to expect government to respond appropriately. More needs to be done."