Nanotech Overview

Nanotechnology is a powerful new technology for taking apart and reconstructing nature at the atomic and molecular level. It is being touted as the basis of the next industrial revolution and will be used to transform and construct a wide range of new materials, devices, technological systems and even living organisms. Nanotechnology will likely underpin and impact all industries and sectors of the economy, and is likely to facilitate far-reaching changes in social, economic and ecological relations. Opinion is sharply divided regarding whether these changes will be largely positive or negative.

Proponents suggest that nanotechnology will deliver gains in fields as diverse as manufacturing, medicine, environmental remediation and military applications. However critics argue that nanotechnology introduces serious new risks to human health and the environment, raises problematic ethical issues and is likely to result in large-scale socioeconomic disruption.

Governments are beginning to recognize the need for new laws to protect workers, the public and the environment from the risks of nanotoxicity. However despite the commercial availability of over 720 products containing nanomaterials1, not a single government worldwide has yet introduced regulations that require nanomaterials to be subject to new safety assessments prior to commercial release. The failure of government regulators to take seriously the early warning signs surrounding nanotoxicity suggests that they have learnt nothing from any of the long list of disasters that resulted from the failure to respond to early warning signs about previous perceived "wonder" materials (like asbestos, DDT and PCBs).

Nanotechnology is being commercialized largely outside of general public awareness or debate, and without any serious attempt to involve the community in decision making about its introduction. Issues of ethics, democracy and nanotechnology’s broader socio-economic impacts have yet to register in the debate.

What is nanotechnology?

There is still not an internationally accepted nomenclature, set of definitions and measurement systems for nanotechnology, although work towards these has begun. The lack of a standardized nomenclature and measurement system has made it difficult to compare safety tests, exposure measurement and risk assessment carried out to date. However, the term 'nanotechnology' is now generally understood to encompass both nanoscience and the broad range of technologies that operate at the nanoscale.

  • Nanoscience: The study of phenomena and materials at the atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, where properties differ significantly from those at the larger scale
  • Nanotechnology: design, characterization, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at the nanoscale
  • Nanoscale: having one or more dimensions of the order of 100nm or less, or having at least one dimension that affects functional behavior at this scale
  • Nanomaterials: particles, nanotubes, nanowires, quantum dots, fullerenes (buckyballs) etc that exist at a scale of 100nm or less, or that have at least one dimension that affects their functional behavior at this scale One nanometre (nm) is one thousandth of a micrometer (ìm), one millionth of a millimeter (mm) and one billionth of a meter (m). To put 100 nanometers in context: a strand of DNA is 2.5nm wide, a protein molecule is 5nm, a virus particle 150nm, a red blood cell 7,000 nm and a human hair is 80, 000 nm wide and a flea is around 1,000,000nm in size.

Engineered vs. incidental nanoparticles

Engineered nanoparticles are deliberately manufactured and can be distinguished from nanoparticles that 'exist in nature', or are by-products of other human activities. 'Incidental' nanoparticles (also called ultrafine particles in the study of air pollution and its epidemiology) are a by-product of forest fires and volcanoes, and high-temperature industrial processes including combustion, welding, grinding and vehicle combustion. It is the manufactured or engineered nanotechnological products and processes that are the primary focus of the issues raised in this briefing paper. However many of the safety and regulatory issues relating to manufactured nanoparticles are also relevant to incidentally produced nanoparticles (e.g. the need to establish safe workplace exposure limits for all types of nanoparticles).


A citizen's petition signed by Friends of the Earth and seven other groups calling for the Food and Drug Administration to adopt sensible principles for testing the safety of nanoparticles.

Friends of the Earth's reaction to a ruling by the FDA that rejected calls for products containing nanoparticles to be specially labeled and for the particles to be subject to special regulations.

Taken from a paper prepared by Georgia Miller for Friends of the Earth Australia and Friends of the Earth United States. This paper represents the position of Friends of the Earth US. For queries please contact Ian Illuminato at Friends of the Earth US or Georgia Miller at Friends of the Earth Australia.