STRASBOURG, France – In 2012, the Council of Europe (CoE) Parliamentary Assembly began the first steps towards nanotechnology regulation with a view to respecting scientific precautionary principles. It commissioned an expert report, “Nanotechnology: balancing benefits and risks to public health and the environment,” which was enthusiastically accepted at the CoE meeting of the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development in November 2012. That same report was open for public debate before the entire Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, France, on April 26, 2013.

The report outlines essential European legal concepts for public discourse concerning nanotechnology safety and the regulation of nanotechnology in commerce. First, the report offers an overview of the legal landscape in nanotechnology regulation: bioethics issues, impact on human and non-human health, environmental impact, and the promise of nanomedicine for improving quality of life. Second, the report helps to chart a path regarding possible treaties or international agreements governing the use and monitoring of nanotechnology.

“Nanotechnology's revolution for commerce can revolutionize public health,” said nanolaw expert, Ilise L Feitshans, who authored the report. “But it requires civil society's forethought to maximize nanotechnology’s benefits.”

Benefits of applying nanotechnology include medical miracles and social transformations that will correct longstanding system problems in access, public awareness and delivery of services associated with public health, because nanotechnology will change these antiquated systems. But, application of nanotechnology often requires use of well-established toxic and hazardous materials such as titanium dioxide in a format where it exhibits novel properties. Therefore, no one can declare that any application of nanotechnology is completely safe, even though quantifying the risks is premature. “Nanotechnology poses the greatest bioethical issue of informed consent for the 21st Century, for Europe and for the rest of the world,” Feitshans added. “The state of the art is such that decision makers have more questions than answers.”

The legislative bodies of the Council of Europe have therefore begun consideration of accelerated efforts to create and implement the scientific precautionary principles into nanotechnology applications, with due regard for freedom of research and innovation and consumer health. As the only pan-European body with an international human rights protection mandate, the report suggests that it behooves these bodies to consider setting legal standards for commercial applications of nanotechnology based on precautionary principles.