Managing the Effects of Nanotechnology

  • January 11, 2006
  • By J. Clarence Davies
Nanotechnology (NT) is the production and use of materials at the smallest possible scale—100 nanometers or less. One hundred nanometers is approximately 1/800th the width of a human hair and 1/70th the diameter of a red blood cell. Materials at the nanoscale often exhibit very different physical, chemical, and biological properties than their normal size counterparts. While we know little about possible adverse effects of nanotechnology, we know enough to recognize that there needs to be some type of governmental oversight to ensure that public health and safety are not adversely affected. The paper, Managing the Effects of Nanotechnology, reviews the options currently available to provide oversight, looking at the entire suite of federal government regulations, and concludes that:
  • Nanotechnology is difficult to address using existing regulations.
  • A new law may be required to manage potential risks of nanotechnology.
  • New mechanisms and institutional capabilities are needed.

If nothing specific is done to manage nanotechnology's possible adverse effects, a range of undesirable developments could emerge.The public potentially would be left unprotected, the government would struggle to apply existing laws to a technology for which they were not designed, and industry would be exposed to the possibility of public backlash, loss of markets, and potential financial liabilities. The challenges presented by nanotechnology are as many and varied as the promises that NT holds for a better life. If nanotechnology is to fulfill its promise, society must openly face the issues of whether the technology has or could have adverse effects, what these effects are, and how to prevent them in the future.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies on