Nanotechnology, which concerns the study of and working with matter on an ultra-small scale, is widely perceived as one of the key technologies of the 21st century with a potential to grow into a 1 trillion euro industry within a decade. Fears are growing that the field could develop into a political battleground with fiery debates about environmental and ethical consequences and dangers – just as has happened in the field of biotechnology.

Nanotechnology involves studying and working with matter on an ultra-small scale: one nanometre is one-millionth of a millimetre and a single human hair is around 80,000 nanometres in width. The technology stretches across the whole spectrum of science, touching medicine, physics, engineering and chemistry, and so is difficult to pin down to one discrete area. Nanosubstances are already included in sunscreens to block ultraviolet rays, while nanoceramics are being used as bone-replacement agents. Research is expected to lead to advances in areas such as medicine, environment, manufacturing, communications and electronics.

Described as 'a new industrial revolution', nanotechnologies have the potential to produce sweeping changes to all aspects of human society. Their use might be particularly beneficial in the areas of environment, communication, health and production. Supporters of this view say that they could deliver cleaner, safer, more competitive production processes, as well as smarter, more durable and more user-friendly products. This could provide innovative answers to the triple challenge of sustainable development: how to fuel economic growth, while preserving the environment, and at the same time enhance the safety, security and quality of life of European citizens.

At the same time, critics warn of dangers such as terrorist use of weapons based on nanotechnology, or the so called 'grey goo' scenario, in which the biosphere is destroyed by out-of-control, self-replicating robots.

Although there is no immediate evidence for such dangers, decision makers agree that in order to gain public support, there is a strong need for an informed debate about the safety of products at the nanoscale, how future advances can be monitored and controlled, and who may profit from them.

European strategy for nanotechnology was adopted in 2004 to boost European nanotechnology R&D and to improve technology transfer to turn research findings into commercially-viable products. A public consultation on the strategy revealed a strong stakeholder consensus on that nanotechnology will have a significant impact on European industry and its citizens within ten years from now (see EURACTIV 12/01/05).

An EU action plan for 2005-2009, defining actions for the "immediate implementation of a safe, integrated and responsible strategy for Nanosciences and Nanotechnologies (N&N)", was adopted in June 2005. Its aims include fostering industrial exploitation of R&D on nanotech, working on common standards and integrating risk assessment related to human health and the environment at all stages of the life cycle of nanotech.

"While it is difficult to collect all quantitative indicators for the period 2005-2007, a positive impact can nonetheless be seen", stated the Commission's first implementation report on the EU nanosciences and nanotechnologies action plan 2005-2009, issued in September 2007.

An initial observation is that the community funding for nanotech research has increased considerably. From the €120 million available under FP4, the funding for nanosciences and nanotechnologies (N&N) increased to €1.4 billion in FP6 (2002-2006). Some €3.5 billion is foreseen for N&N in FP7 (2007-2013).

"The Commission has become de facto the single largest public funding agency worldwide to support development of nanotechnology", said Renzo Tomellini, head of the executive's operational unit on N&N, adding that the Commission contribution represents one third of all public spending in nanotechnology in Europe. 

In addition, patent applications originating from FP6 nanotech projects are said to have more than doubled in the first two years of the framework programme. 

The report also shows that since 1998 some €28 million has been dedicated to projects expressly focused on research into the potential impact of nanotechnologies on health and the environment. Safety research is said to "significantly increase in FP7, both in size and scope, subject to absorption capacity". 

According to the Commission, standardisation in the N&N field will have "an important role both at European and international level". The EU executive has given the European standards bodies CEN, CENELEC and ETSI a mandate to develop a nanotech standardisation programme, which would "take account of the need for a revision of existing standards or the development of new ones, in relation to health, safety and environmental protection" [see the European standards bodies report] . 

In June 2008, the Commission published a Communication on regulatory aspects of nanomaterials, based on a regulatory review of legislation in relation to health, safety and environment aspects of nanomaterials. The review concludes that the current EU legislative framework "covers in principle the potential health, safety and environmental risks in relation to nanomaterials" but that current legislation "may have to be modified in the light of new information becoming available, for example as regards thresholds used in some legislation". 

According to the review, nanomaterials are covered under current EU laws on: 

  • Chemicals, namely REACH, consisting of specific rules on the manufacture and market authorisation of substances on their own, in preparation or in articles;
  • health and safety of workers, and;
  • product requirements for health and safety of workers, consumers and protection of the environment:

    • Groups of products: plant protection products, biocides, new approach legislation, cosmetics, aerosol dispensers, medicinal products and cars; 
    • food legislation: general food law, novel food, food contact materials, food additives, food supplements, feed legislation; 
    • General Product Safety Directive on consumer products not covered by specific regulation, and;  
  • environment: directives on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC), major accidents (Seveso II Directive), water, waste, air quality, soil protection and environmental liability. 

The EU executive has also adopted a recommendation on code of conduct for responsible nanotech research. It calls on member states to respect the precautionary principle in research on nanoscience in order to protect not only researchers but also professionals, consumers, citizens and the environment.

Future N&N challenges identified by the Commission include: the availability of interdisciplinary infrastructures of excellence, critical mass, appropriate conditions for the safe and effective use of nanotechnology, a shared understanding of the responsibility of researchers within an ethical framework, shortage of private investment in research and industrial innovation and duplication in research among individual member states.

The public debate on nanotechnology really began to take off in 2003 with several articles and publications discussing the benefits and risks of the new technology. 

In January 2003, the Canadian environmental Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) published a report on nanotechnologies and their potential impact on society entitled 'The Big Down'. Reviewing the impact, risks and main actors in the area of nanotechnology and outlining policy recommendations, the ETC is a firm believer in the dangers of the 'grey goo scenario' and warns that "in the future, mass production of unique nanomaterials and self-replicating nano-machinery pose incalculable risks. Atomtech [nanotechnology] could also mean the creation and combination of new elements and the amplification of weapons of mass destruction". 

In February 2003, the University of Toronto published a paper called 'Mind the gap: science and ethics in nanotechnology', pointing to the lack of research into the ethical, legal and social implications of nanotechnology. The study warns "as the science leaps ahead, the ethics lags behind. There is danger of derailing NT [nanotechnology] if the study of ethical, legal, and social implications does not catch up with the speed of scientific development". 

A report entitled 'The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology', published in July 2003 by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK, is the result of a co-operation between three Sheffield academics in social and natural sciences, and provides an assessment of the various scenarios. It concludes that the public debate focuses on the long-term possibilities of radical nanotechnology rather than the rather mundane applications that have arrived so far, although there is as yet no conclusion as to the practical limits to nanotechnology. One immediate issue identified by the report is whether regulatory regimes are robust enough to deal with any consequences that may arise from continued research. 

Greenpeace Environmental Trust launched their report 'Future Technologies, Today's Choices' in July 2003 with information on nanotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, putting these emerging technologies into their technical, political and institutional context. It calls on government and industry to thoroughly assess the environmental, medical and ethical challenges faced. In particular, the report demands that an in-depth analysis of environmental implications be conducted, stressing that while environmental benefits may well be achievalbe in some areas, a number of pract ices which might lead to the release of nanoparticles into the environment are a cause of major concern. These, say Greenpeace, could "constitute whole new classes of non biodegradable pollutants". 

The UK Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in November 2003 published a report (commissioned by the UK government) entitled 'Nanotechnology: views of Scientists and Engineers' as part of a study into the benefits and problems of nanotechnology and nanoscience. While the experts believe that nanotechnology can be used to benefit human health and the environment, a strong focus of the report is on the question of health risks and environmental dangers of nanotubes and other nanoparticles. The scientists therefore call for further studies to be carried out to assess these dangers. The report also concludes that the science fiction scenario of self-replicating 'nanorobots' transforming the world into 'grey goo' is likely to be physically impossible. 

For more views on nanotech, see's dossier on Nanotechnology and consumer confidence.

  • Jan. 2007: The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies' (EGEopinion report on the ethical aspects of nanomedicine.
  • June 2007: EuroNanoForum 2007.
  • Sep. 2007: The first implementation report on the EU nanotech action plan for 2005-2009. 
  • 7 Feb. 2008: The Commission adopted a recommendation on code of conduct for responsible nanotech R&D.
  • 17 June 2008: The Commission published a Communication on regulatory aspects of nanomaterials. (See regulatory review of legislation in relation to health, safety and environment aspects of nanomaterials).
  • 25 Sept. 2008: International Organization for Standardization published its first two nanotech standards on definitions and occupational health and safety.
  • 2-3 Oct. 2008: EU Nanotechnology "Safety for Success" -conference.
  • 14 Oct. 2008: The European Food Safety Authority published its draft scientific opinion on the potential risks of the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector.
  • 21-23 Oct. 2008Nano Risk Conference.
  • 2008: The Commission and EU agencies will start to review existing documents that support implementation of the various directives with regard to their applicability and appropriateness to nanomaterials. 
  • April 2008: CEN, CENELEC and ETSI presented a nanotech standardisation programme (see mandate)
  • 2009: The second mid-term review of the EU nanotech action plan for 2005-2009.
  • 2011: Commission will issue a progress report on the implementation of existing regulations on nanomaterials.

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