A recent report by Health Care Without Harm Europe suggests that existing regulatory frameworks are insufficient to protect human health and the environment from the use of nanotechnology in healthcare.

The author of the report – Dr Rye Senjen from the National Toxics Network, Australia – said “nanomedicine is an exciting new field with the potential to deliver important health outcomes. However, it needs to be properly regulated if we are to reap the benefits and avoid exposing ourselves and the environment to unnecessary risks.” Nanomaterials are essentially new, largely untested chemicals with little known about their persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity to the human body and the environment.

Scientists have raised concerns that existing risk assessment methods are inadequate for assessing the environmental and human health risks posed by nanomaterials. Nanomaterials are often more reactive and more able to penetrate cells than larger particles of the same chemicals. Whilst these properties present new medical opportunities, they also pose new risks which need to be properly managed. Their greater reactivity can make nanomaterials potentially more toxic than larger particles of the same chemicals. We are only just beginning to understand the novel risks associated with nanomaterials.

For example, certain nanomaterials have be shown to have asbestos like qualities, disrupt immune cell function and
damage DNA.

Nanomedicine is already big business with the global nanomedicine market estimated to be worth $50.1 billion in 2011. Applications of nanotechnology in health care include diagnostic and imaging tools; nanoscale drugs and targeted drug delivery systems; anti-microbial medical dressings and textiles; bone substitutes and dental materials; coatings for implants; and tissue repair structures.

Friends of the Earth Australia and the National Toxics Network are calling on the Federal Government to:

  • Apply the precautionary principle to the regulation of nanomedicine.
  • Prioritise research to address safety concerns regarding the risks of nanomedicine products in human health and the environment.
  • Create a mandatory register for the production, import and use of nanomaterials and nanomedicine products.
  • Introduce compulsory labelling of all nanomedicine products, so patients and healthcare workers can make informed decisions about the use of such products.
  • Restrict the clinical use of nano-silver to critical applications and patients.