Gateway to new horizons
Investigating and applying nanotechnologies may be interpreted as an advance to a new dimension. It is the possibility to examine and manipulate matter at the smallest scale which opens up a variety of groundbreaking opportunities.
Much the same as this journey to the new and unknown offers great opportunities, it might also cover risks. We have learned from the past that every new technology offers both opportunities and risks. The potential risks of a new technology should thus be carefully investigated together with the opportunities in order to meet the risks well prepared and in a proactive way.
The following example may be used to illustrate how close opportunities and risks sometimes are. From a medical point of view, it sounds great if a particular nanoparticle is able to transport some agent to a certain location in the human body which has previously been impossible to reach. However, the same novel behaviour patterns might cause the nanoparticles to react or even cause harm in unexpected ways too.
Balancing opportunities & risks
Proactively dealing with safety and risk issues of nanotechnologies will enable a responsible approach to these new technologies. If we want to exploit the opportunities which nanotechnologies undoubtedly offer, potential risks should nevertheless be taken into account at an early stage and be well balanced against each other.
These kind of decisions, however, require a profound understanding of the risks. Acquiring the necessary understanding, however, will allow us to install appropriate safety measures to protect human health the environment, or restrict certain critical nanomaterials in their use, for example.
Due to the great variety of different nanomaterials and the heterogeneity of nanotechnology applications, general conclusions on "the risks of nanotechnology" are however not legitimate. The assessment needs to be done on a case-by-case basis. Let us therefore learn some more about the debate on safety and risks of nanomaterials.
Research to know the risks
Since 2006, Switzerland has its own Action Plan "Risk Assessment and Risk Management of Synthetic Nanomaterials". In the context of the Action Plan, the involved federal agencies in cooperation with nano experts develop measures to assess and manage the risks of synthetic nanoparticles.
Within the scope of the National Research Program (NRP) "Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials" (NRP 64), the scientific foundations to formulate recommendations and measures for the manufacturing, use and disposal of nanomaterials will be developed within the next five years.
Besides the publicly funded research programmes and the safety research done in the industry, Swiss researchers are also actively involved in the ongoing Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) of the European Union. Under this extensive programme, a variety of different projects are on the way to better understand the possible risks of manufactured nanomaterials.