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Taming the tiniest technology

Photography: Greg Ford and Getty Images

Nanotechnology is developing apace, yet no country has introduced laws to regulate it. At Monash, researchers in the Law faculty are looking for the best place to start.

Technology tamers: Professor Graeme Hodge and Ms Diana Bowman are investigating models for regulating nanotechnology.

Nanotech is everywhere. It's in the sunscreens we use, the stain-resistant clothes we wear and the digital cameras we use. Over the next decade, almost every type of manufactured good is likely to be influenced by this technology. Yet there remains no regulation of it, and the question being asked is: how do we regulate something we can't see?

Nanotechnology is a form of molecular engineering that enables the manipulation of matter at the atomic level, potentially allowing scientists to create specific particles, molecular structures and devices in sizes that are barely comprehensible.

Conservative estimates put the number of nanotech products on the market at between 500 and 700, but there could be two to three times that number. Put simply, says Monash Law PhD researcher Ms Diana Bowman, no-one knows exactly how many nano-products are currently commercially available, because there is no requirement to register or label them.

Ms Bowman is investigating the emerging issue of nanotechnology regulation nationally and internationally, with the aim of determining regulatory models for nanotechnology.

She is part of a team of researchers from the Faculty of Law who are leading the charge in Australia, through a partnership with Nanotechnology Victoria and numerous international links.

Commercially available products incorporating nanotechnology are plentiful -- foods, pesticides, sunscreens, cosmetics, stain-resistant clothing, automotive paints and coatings, sporting goods and digital cameras can all lay claim to having a nanotech component. It's not surprising, says Ms Bowman, when the nanotechnology promises significant social benefits, including enhancements in medical diagnosis and health treatments, more efficient energy sources, and lighter, faster and cheaper materials and electronic products.

"But the rapid advance and commercialisation of this technology is already testing existing national and international frameworks," she says.

Ms Bowman says there is a fundamental lack of knowledge about the regulatory frameworks that will best suit countries such as Australia, even though it appears that nanotechnology is sufficiently different to other technologies -- such as biotechnology and pharmaceuticals -- to warrant separate consideration.

"There are no requirements to label products that contain nano-particles, so people are probably unaware they are already using goods that contain this technology," she says.

"There is some concern about products such as cosmetics, which may contain nano-particles that are so small they could pass through the skin and into the bloodstream. For instance, while chemicals such as titanium oxide have been tested by Australian regulators and are considered to be safe, existing chemicals that are re-engineered at the nanoscale and incorporated into cosmetics appear to fall under the regulatory radar and are therefore not required to be re-tested. This situation is concerning given the current lack of scientific knowledge regarding potential health and safety risks."

Although Ms Bowman does not advocate governments rushing to implement new legislation, she concedes there needs to be more testing of nano-particles.

"Industry is racing ahead, while governments worldwide are finding it difficult to keep pace," she says.

"No country has introduced laws to regulate nanotechnology, but the British Government, for example, is conducting a review of its legislation and has begun the process of compiling  reports to determine if there are any gaps."

One of Ms Bowman's PhD supervisors, Professor Graeme Hodge, who is the Director of the Monash Centre for Regulatory Studies, says it's important to remember how much potential nanotechnology has.

"The government doesn't want to kill the goose that may well lay the next golden economic egg," he says.

"These days people want less red tape and don't want regulation to stifle innovation.

"But it's equally important for the Australian Government to be aware of legislative initiatives already being pursued around the world, and aware of gaps in our scientific knowledge."

Professor Hodge says Australia has a history of making intelligent regulatory decisions, but believes it needs to learn lessons from previous technologies, including asbestos and genetically modified organisms.

"Things look rosy at the moment, but a single industrial accident involving nano-particles could lead to a knee-jerk regulatory over-reaction and curb this industry overnight."