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Size Matters: Regulating Nanotechnology

August 2009

Citation: ELR 10806

Author: Albert C. Lin

Nanomaterials and products containing nanomaterials are quickly being integrated into a wide range of commercial and noncommercial applications. As nanomaterials grow more commonplace, we are coming in contact with these substances on an increasingly regular basis, in products ranging from stain-resistant khaki pants to sunscreens. Despite the expanding use of nanomaterials, relatively little is known about the possible harm they could pose. Current forms of government regulation are proving inadequate in addressing this potential harm. Therefore, it is imperative that new mechanisms be developed to learn more about these new substances, while protecting against the unknown risks they present to society.

Nanotechnology is the term used to describe the burgeoning field of manipulating matter at a nanometer scale. Engineered nanomaterials are derived from conventional chemical substances, but have unique characteristics and surface coatings that often lead them to behave very differently. The small size and high surface-area-to-mass ratio of nanosized particles enhance the mechanical, electrical, optical, catalytic, and/or biological activity of a substance. This unusual behavior, however, along with known hazards presented by naturally occurring particles of somewhat similar size, has caused concern over the effects that nanomaterials could have on human health and the environment. Free nanoparticles that may be released into the environment, whether intentionally or incidentally as a product is used, are of particular concern. These substances are believed to be the most likely to be able to enter the body, react with cells, and cause tissue damage. There is very little data on harmful effects from real world exposure to engineered nanoparticles, but this uncertainty should not be used as an excuse for regulatory inaction.

Albert C. Lin is a Professor of Law at the University of California at Davis.

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