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Posted: November 11, 2008

Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution publishes nanotechnology report

(Nanowerk News) Tomorrow, on November 12, 2008, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) in the UK will publish its latest report on "Novel Materials in the Environment: The case of Nanotechnology".
The consultation exercise on the subject for this latest study, held between October and December 2005, yielded a substantial number of helpful responses, and the Royal Commission were grateful to all who contributed. Having considered all the responses, the Royal Commission decided that the environmental effects of novel materials and applications would be the most appropriate topic for the study. It was well supported, and repressents an area where, with the exception of nanotechnology, little work has been carried out to date.
The new study began in late 2006 with a scoping phase, and as part of that phase the Commission is sought to identify the issues and areas it would be most appropriate for the new study to investigate. A seminar [pdf,35KB] will took place on 11 January 2007 to identify concerns and issues that the study might explore. The Commission then invited the submission of detailed evidence on specific issues that the study would cover.
Four supplementary reports were commissioned as part of the study (available for download from 12th November):
  • Regulation in the Chemical Industry (Mariana Doria, University of Trento, Italy)
  • Exposure, Uptake, Distribution and Toxicity of Nanomaterials (Professor Stephen Holgate, University of Southampton (UK) and former Member, RCEP)
  • Literature review on Toxicology of Novel Materials (Tamara Galloway, Peninsular Medical School, UK)
  • Nanomaterials Innovation Systems: Their Structure, Dynamics and Regulation (Paul Nightingale and colleagues, SPRU, UK)
  • Background to the New Study
    Novel materials, along with new forms and applications of existing chemicals are continually being developed to help make technological advances and improve performance, mainly in the fields of engineering and IT, but also in many other fields. An example of such a development is rhenium, which has previously been just a waste product from copper mining. It is now used in nickel alloys for jet engines, enabling them to fly at temperatures at about fifty degrees centigrade higher than previously, so lowering fuel consumption.
    Nanotechnology and nanoscience are also developing at a rapid pace. Current uses include sunscreens based around microfine particles, car bumpers made from nanocomposites and coatings made from titanium dioxide nanoparticles to produce self cleaning windows 1.
    Lately, governments have started to look into this issue, developing policies and funding research. The majority of work carried out in this field has been on nanoscience and technology. The Royal Society in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering published a policy document called "Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties" in July 2004. The report was wide-ranging and included a section on the environmental effects of nanoscience and technology. The UK government published its response to that report in February 2005, and agreed that further research on environmental effects would need to be carried out.
    The Office of Science and Technology has set up the inter-governmental Nanotechnology Issues Dialogue Group (NIDG) which will co-ordinate Government activities in this field, and provide evidence to inform the Council for Science and Technology's two and five year reviews of Government's progress on this issue.
    Defra is also looking at the environmental effects of these new technologies, using the Royal Society's report as a basis. The Advisory Committee on Hazardous Chemicals has received a number of presentations on the subject. The European Commission also published a 4 year action plan on nanotechnology in June 2005.
    The environmental impacts of other new materials, such as rare earth metals in electronic components, in use or in development appear to be less well-studied.
    The study will be addressing UK policies and programmes and will make recommendations to the UK government, but the Commission will also look at work being carried out at the EU and global level.
    Broad Topics to be Covered
    Novel materials and applications cover a wide range of scientific, engineering and technological fields. There are a number of possible ways to subdivide this topic into categories for investigation and how to do this for the purposes of the Royal Commission's report was one of the first issues to be addressed. An example of this is demonstrated by the European Commission who has divided the field into four for the purposes of its research programme, including:
  • Crosscutting materials technologies: This involves developing novel materials with wide ranging application potential, and includes nanotechnology, surface engineering and materials processing technologies;
  • Advanced functional materials: This involves highly advanced materials with multi-sector use, including electronics, magnetic / optical materials, sensors and industrial systems and biomaterials;
  • Sustainable chemistry: This covers the development of sustainable industrial chemistry with efficient use of resources and recycled materials, such as chemical engineering, advanced chemical reactions and chemistry for new materials;
  • Structural materials: This covers all types of engineering.
  • As novel and advanced materials and applications are released into industrial processes and the market place, they will be affected by, and have effects on the environment. The expansion of work in this area and the raising of its profile has meant increased interest and awareness in the subject. The Royal Commission intended to carry out a wide-ranging investigation, looking at different categories of novel materials and applications, including nanomaterials, positive and negative environmental impacts of novel materials, risk assessment and management, the regulatory framework and the identification of research gaps.
    Broad topics that it was thought could be covered included:
  • the development process of new materials;
  • the life-cycle analysis of these materials;
  • toxicity and eco-toxicity issues;
  • what the potential impacts on human health in terms of environmental exposure are;
  • what the potential environmental impacts are, both positive and negative, along with possible ways of dealing with them;
  • whether novel materials and applications are adequately regulated under existing environmental regulations;
  • waste issues: some products containing novel materials have a short lifespan and may not be recyclable.
  • The breadth of this study was potentially very wide, depending on the definition of novel materials used. Therefore, the Commission took the decision not to investigate the use of GM technology, nor the human health aspects of pharmaceuticals or medical devices.
    Invitation to submit views on the key issues
    The Commission is requested views and information to help it to set the scope of the study. The purpose of this phase of the study wass to obtain an overview of current thinking about the topic, broadly defined, and to gather sufficient background information to enable the Commission to formulate their own expectations for the study; the roles they expected the report to fulfil and what audience(s) they intended for the report. At the end of this phase, the Commission defined the issues the report should cover.
    The list of issues given above was not intended to be comprehensive or definitive and the Commission were glad to have other significant issues drawn to their attention, together with views on the specific questions that should be investigated. A seminar on the study was be held in autumn 2006.
    The letter was addressed to over 100 organisations (listed in the annex) that were particularly likely to have useful experience. It was also sent to the Commission's counterpart bodies in other European countries. The text of the responses will be placed on the Commission's web site at: http://www.rcep.org.uk . Details of the study were also publicised in a news release.
    A further invitation was issued, asking for written evidence on more specific questions. The Commission used the preliminary views and information sought here to target the written evidence exercise. This call for written evidence was sent to both recipients of the letter and a wider group of organisations and individuals.
    Source: Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution
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