It's been clear for several years that we need to move beyond merely conducting more studies on nanotechnology and risk and start looking at how regulation of nanotechnologies should be established, something I first wrote about nearly three years ago.
In the intervening years, serious observers have expressed concern on how such regulations would be enacted. Then the European Union (EU) further fueled that concern by their awkward process of defining nanotechnology in order to establish its regulatory policy. Creating regulatory policy is never an elegant process.
But this is the way of governments, I suppose. When in doubt about what course of action to take, establish a committee, or, better yet, a public outreach project.
Now this grinding pace of governance has worn thin the patience of some scientists. In a recent editorial piece in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, entitled “When Enough is Enough,” authors Steffen Foss Hansen and Anders Baun, both of Technical University of Denmark's Department of Environmental Engineering, have reached their breaking point. In the editorial, they explain their frustration with a request from the European Commission (EC) for another study on the environmental, health and safety considerations of nanosilver.
If you don’t have a Nature Nanotechnology subscription, Nanowerk has a story on the editorial and an interview with the two authors. They do not hide their irritation with the EC and its “paralysis by analysis,” as Nanowerk calls it.
"Most of these questions—and possibly all of them—have already been addressed by no less than 18 review articles in scientific journals, the oldest dating back to 2008, plus at least seven more reviews and reports commissioned and/or funded by governments and other organizations" Hansen tells Nanowerk. "Many of these reviews and reports go through the same literature, cover the same ground and identify many of the same data gaps and research needs."
What may make the matter even worse is that we may already have a pretty substantial framework—in the US, at least—on which to base nanosilver regulations, which dates back to the 1950s. It concerned what was called at the time collodial silver, which is essentially what today is called nanosilver.
But getting back to current stagnant state of affairs, it’s hard to know exactly what’s causing the paralysis. It could be concern over implementing regulations in a depressed economy, or just a fear of taking a position. But in both these instances, the lack of action is making the situation worse. Investment is scared off by a market that appears ripe for regulation but none have been implemented. Taking no action may seem politically expedient now, but it will come back to haunt the timid bureaucrats. Surely, we can base regulations on what we know now about nanosilver risk, and amend them later, if the situation demands it.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.