The rising popularity of nanomaterials is outstripping efforts to understand their potential dangers, says a report. It calls for international collaboration to establish safety tests and regulatory oversight of the materials.
The UK-based Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution says that while the materials have so far shown no sign of being harmful, there is a "major gap" in research about their potential risks.
Nanomaterials — whose tiny components are less than 0.1 micrometres in size but larger than molecules — are prized because their properties differ from those of their larger-scale counterparts. These new properties can be unforeseen. For example, the behaviour of carbon nanotubes — markedly different from that of graphite, another form of carbon — is hard to predict.
But different nanomaterials present different potential risks, so it is important to categorise these materials based not only on their size but also their functionality, says the report.
The report adds there is no reason to issue a blanket ban or moratorium on nanomaterials, because of their marked societal benefits. But it highlights some materials that are of particular concern, including carbon nanofibres, whose nanotubes have shown similarities to asbestos.