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Is nanotechnology below the regulatory radar in Australia?

20 July, 2006

Immediate government attention is needed to address how best to regulate nanotechnology in Australia, with nanotech products such as some cosmetics, food and medicines already falling below the regulatory radar.

A workshop into the regulation of nanotechnologies, attended in Melbourne by experts from Europe , the United States, Israel and Australia , recently discussed concerns that the public is being treated as "guinea pigs" with manufactured products increasingly containing nanoparticles.

The Director of Monash's Centre for Regulatory Studies, Professor Graeme Hodge, said nanotechnology - manufacturing at the molecular level - was likely to result in major advances in health, medical treatment and manufacturing, as well as become big business for Australia.

"But while the promises of the technology are huge, there have also been calls for a moratorium on the production of nanotechnology-based products," he said.

Professor Hodge wants the Australian government to acknowledge the importance of reviewing regulation in the development of these technologies. "It is crucial that the public have the utmost confidence that appropriate regulatory safeguards are in place for nano-based products," he said.

A recent federal government Senate Community Affairs References Committee Inquiry into workplace exposure to toxic dust recommended that Australia's national nanotechnology strategy be finalised as a matter of priority.

"We do not want the situation that we have had in the past with asbestos, where it took decades for the hazards of a new technology to be quantified and controlled. Citizens rightly expect governments and the business sector to be more accountable," Professor Hodge said.

His views are supported by senior lecturer Dr Karinne Ludlow and research fellow Diana Bowman from the Faculty of Law.

"Governments and industry need to take this matter more seriously than they appear to be doing at the moment. I believe that we are entering an exciting new nano-age, but there are many risks that we simply know too little about," Professor Hodge said.

"It would be a tragedy if governments around the world waited until a nano-disaster occurred before thinking seriously about regulatory needs. This would most likely produce an over-reaction and severely restrict the ability of companies to innovate and grow. Nanotechnologies hold both promise and peril. We need to strengthen policy dialogue and get these regulatory questions right."

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