Nanotechnology has been heralded as one of the most significant innovations in recent times. Modern nano-scale technology has been introduced into the manufacturing of a range of products from cosmetics to computers; changed the food industry by offering the ability to create nutritional supplements and extend shelf life; and has offered significant improvements in medicine, including the development of more effective drug delivery systems.  But what does this new buzzword mean?

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, © 2005. Some rights reserved.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, © 2005. Some rights reserved.

Nanotechnology is broadly defined as “materials, systems and processes that exist or operate at the extremely small scale of a few hundred nanometres (nm) or less”.[1] How small is that? The answer, in short, is very small. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. To put that in context, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick and a human hair is approximately 80,000 nanometers wide.[2]  Nanotechnology as a process is the artificial combining of atoms and molecules to “create particles and structures with functions different from the same material at a larger scale”.[3]Nanotechnology is considered a priority for nationally funded research in many countries like Russia, China and the United States to promote international competitiveness, and it is increasingly used in a wide range of commercial products.

What is the concern?

Why have environmentalists flagged this innovation as a concern? The risk lies in the appeal of nanotechnology – the opening up of a new realm of materials. Materials at the nano scale have fundamentally different properties to the same materials at the ‘bulk level’ (non-nano), which is important for innovation and expanding the use of commonly used materials. However, these changing properties bring with them changing toxicological profiles. Studies have shown that the inhalation of carbon nanotubes (nano scale tubes of graphitic carbon, used in items like tennis rackets and baseball bats for their strength and light weight) can have the same effect on the lungs as asbestos[4]. These changing toxicological profiles therefore create risks to human health and to the natural world. Many nanoparticles demonstrate potential for bio magnification and bioaccumulation in the environment, which allow toxins to build up within a food chain and threaten fragile ecosystems.

Why has it been ignored?

There is a great lack of information and public interest in this potentially hazardous development of technology. Research into the potential harms of nanotechnology has been lacking so as not to hinder business, at a cost to both workers and the natural environment. Despite an awareness of the potential risk, and uncertainty as to the long-term consequences of this innovation, nanotechnology products have entered onto the market with little or no regulation and limited risk assessment. David Azoulay, Managing Attorney of the Geneva Office of the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL), emphasised that the issue has largely been ignored because of its technical nature, which is an obstacle to an understanding of the problem for many consumers. Azoulay, who leads CIEL’s new nanotechnologies project, also identified an ideological hindrance: “When any new product is considered an innovation, and when any technological innovation is equated with progress, it tends to brush out any question that can be raised in terms of challenging innovation”. Moreover, this issue forces people to acknowledge the inherent inequality that exists within production, as the risks of nanotechnology are disproportionately borne by workers who experience regular exposure to potentially toxic nanoparticles.  However, Azoulay cautions, “by not implementing any sort of precaution today, we create a massive health and/or environmental catastrophe in the future”.

Regulation of nanomaterials

Market regulation

SAICM, the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, is a voluntary framework agreement involving over 100 governments as well as environment, labour and health organizations to promote the safe management of chemicals. Nanotechnology was identified as an emerging policy issue to be regulated within the framework at the Second International Conference on Chemical Management, held in Geneva in 2009. The key recommendations of the working group were the application of the precautionary principle for risk management of nanotechnology as well as transparency and the right of consumers and workers to information; these are highly pertinent suggestions in a field where consumers are largely unaware of the perils. The precautionary principle stipulates that if an action has a suspected risk of causing harm to the environment, it falls upon producers to prove that it is not harmful before entering the market. This has not been applied in the nanotechnology field – rather, new products go on the market and are only removed if it proves dangerous. This problem is therefore amplified by the fact that the market for nanotechnology products has grown much faster than research into the potential long-term effects of the technology. Companies involved in the use of nanotechnology have “no regulatory incentive and only little market incentive” to apply the precautionary principle and, more importantly, “it is simply not part of the culture of most of the industries that design these nano-materials,” says Azoulay.

Legislative regulation

Though there has been an increasing amount of research into the potential adverse effects of nanotechnology, matching regulation has been lacking. REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals), the primary EU regulation on chemicals, has fallen short on regulating nanomaterials. Most significantly, REACH does not define nanomaterials. The lack of an agreed definition of nanomaterials is a problem which plagues the nanotechnology debate. The difficulty of reaching a consensus decision on this issue limits potential legislation, especially with regard to the evolving research in the area and the changing properties of materials at the nano level. Azoulay stresses that: “The understanding of this issue will evolve, so there is always tension between crystallizing knowledge as it is now, or waiting to get a better understanding. To enforce, you need to know where it does apply and where it doesn’t”. It is therefore problematic to reach a consensus decision that will allow the development and application of regulations to cover all potential harmful impacts while leaving room for future research discoveries into nanomaterials.

Organizations and their work (CIEL)

There is a growing movement to increase awareness of the issue, and many groups are lobbying for the responsible management of nanotechnology. CIEL is chairing the nanotechnology working group of the International POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) Elimination Network (IPEN), a group of about 700 non-governmental organizations working to further the understanding of nanomaterials in order to regulate them effectively. The role of the working group, Azoulay says, can be broken down into two parts: “from top to bottom, to circulate information to build capacity (of NGOs and civil society in general around the world); and from bottom up, to collect and translate the concerns of the grassroots organizations into the diplomatic and global negotiations”. CIEL seeks to promote precaution within this new field, given the risks to human health and the natural environment.

Nanotechnology is an important and commendable technological development that has already shown its capability in various sectors of production, agriculture and medicine. However, the threat of unknown risks in the long-term and the largely unregulated market of nanomaterials have rightly caused concern to advocates of the responsible management of chemicals.  This field could dramatically benefit from more consumer demand for safer alternatives to potentially harmful nanomaterials. Though the nanomaterials are infinitesimally small, their potential effect on the future of both humanity and this planet could prove to be gargantuan.


Interview conducted with David Azoulay, Managing Attorney of the Geneva Office of the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL). Mr. Azoulay leads their new nanotechnologies project of and also chairs the working group on nanotechnology of IPEN. Special thanks to Mr. Azoulay for the abundant resources he provided that were extremely helpful in the research process and for his time in the interview.

[1] Nanotechnology, IPEN (accessed 5 February 2014).

[2] National Nanotechnology Initiative, (accessed 8 February 2014).

[3] “What is nanotechnology?”, Social and Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (accessed 4 February 2014).

[4] Asbestos warning on nanotubes, (accessed 5 February 2014).