From ozone layer holes to mutating viruses to radon gas, we are
all aware that what you can't see can definitely hurt you.
Ultra-small nanoparticles could be the foundation of the next
industrial revolution, ushering in a new 'Star Trek' age of
molecular manipulation. But if left unregulated and unchecked,
these substances could prove to be our generation's next
Nanotechnology is the new cutting edge of science. It is
estimated that more than 600 nanotechnology-based consumer
products, made by 305 companies in 20 countries, are already on the
market. By 2015, global nano-based commerce could be worth some
Nanotechnologists work with materials at the molecular scale.
Nanoparticles range between one to one hundred nanometers (a
nanometer is one billionth of a metre) in diameter, thickness or
total size. Nanotechnology is essentially the construction of new
materials and structures using atom-by-atom design.
While governments have been eager to throw research and start-up
money at the new technology, they have been much slower in
addressing the potential human health and environmental threats
that nanoparticles may pose.
Nanoscale materials can have very different properties from
their macroscale counterparts. They exhibit a greater surface area
to mass ratio, which can result in unique thermal, magnetic,
electrical, or chemical behaviour. Substances that otherwise are
nontoxic may become biologically reactive and toxic as
These properties raise red flags about their potential health
and environmental effects.
Nanoparticles can be easily absorbed through the skin, lungs or
digestive tract. Once in the body, they may translocate to distant
tissues and organ systems. They may be able to bioaccumulate and
could even be genotoxic or carcinogenic.
The potential environmental risks are equally uncertain. Are
nanomaterials toxic, persistent or bioaccumulative in nature? Are
they hormone disruptive? Are nanomaterials the 21st
millennium's DDT, its PCBs, its dioxins and furans? We
An expert panel assembled by the Council of Canadian Academies
prepared a report on the health and environmental risks posed by
nanomaterials, concluding that "too little is known" to
assess the overall dangers.
We aren't sure how to measure exposures to nanomaterials. We
don't know how to accurately monitor and track their effects in
the workplace or the ambient environment. We can't even agree
on how to define nanomaterials, the proper nomenclature, or the
best way to classify and group them.
What's next? That's one more thing we don't know,
although Ottawa apparently intends to control nanoparticles under
the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999
In June 2007, Environment Canada released a New Substances
Program Advisory announcing that nanomaterials will be regulated
under CEPA's New Substances Notification (NSN)
Regulations (Chemicals and Polymers). Any nanomaterials not listed
on the Domestic Substances List, or with "unique structures or
molecular arrangements" compared to their non-nano
counterparts, require a NSN package, including a risk
In September 2007, Environment Canada released a Proposed
Regulatory Framework for Nanomaterials. The department has
started implementing parts of the framework, primarily the pursuit
of talks at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and
Development and the International Organization for Standardization,
to achieve international collaboration on the definition and
regulation of nanomaterials.
As part of the Framework, Environment Canada proposed
conducting mandatory surveys under CEPA section 71 on
nanotechnology use in Canada. The survey will target firms and
institutions that manufacture or import more than one kilogram of
nanomaterials in 2008. The information will be used to develop the
national nanotechnology regulatory framework. To date, no request
for information has been published in the Canada Gazette,
and Environment Canada has not posted any details on its
In the interim, businesses that use nanotechnology must take
appropriate steps to protect themselves. Corporate counsel should
begin to consider possible future nano-related risks, including
product liability, environmental costs and liabilities, and
environmental due diligence when purchasing or transferring a
business or commercial property.
Predicting the future is difficult. Perhaps nanotechnology will
fail to dominate the commercial world. Other environmental and
health problems may arise to monopolize your attention. But, if
things do go wrong, no company wants to become the perpetrator of
the next environmental disaster.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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