Great expectations, and no small amount of hype, are pinned on nanotech’s potential to bring about a new industrial revolution. By some accounts, nanotech will boost economies while greening manufacturing, energy generation and more.

Yet technology, as the saying goes, has a habit of giving with one hand and stabbing us in the back with the other. Alongside predictions of great advances from this “atomic-level” manipulation of matter are concerns that significant problems could follow. Hence nanotech’s rating by the World Economic Forum as one of three major technological risks facing the planet.

Ultimately, governance will determine how positive nanotechnology’s contribution will be or how often its products will feature in the manual of cautionary tales (asbestos, DDT, thalidomide, and most recently the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico).

To be clear, nanotech’ products will not necessarily be harmful; some may indeed make possible new and important advances in areas such as energy generation.

The problem is that because nanosafety research lags so far behind product development and commercialisation, it is largely impossible to say whether a nanomaterial will be benign or harmful, when measured over its lifetime.

The difficulties arise because nanotech’s products are sufficiently novel that they confound existing risk assessment. At present, even identifying the presence of most manufactured nanoparticles is problematic, let alone determining their safety. The “to do” list is enormous; by some reckonings, proper risk assessment may be decades away. It is generally agreed that risk (as distinct from harm) should be presumed.

Such uncertainty is an uncomfortable place for governments, particularly when major economic gains or technological advances are touted. But it is a state that we will need to be conversant with in order to properly manage nanotechnologies.

Against the mind-bending horizons envisaged for nanotech, use of nanoscale ingredients in cosmetics and toiletries may seem like the small stuff. Yet these are among the first consumer products on New Zealand shelves to contain nanoparticles and the effects of some may be more than skin deep. They also tell us whether Government is on the case.

At present, nanoscale cosmetic ingredients are effectively unregulated, save the requirement on manufacturers and importers to notify the use of certain types.

Yet last year, the Sustainability Council identified a number of cosmetic products containing nanoscale ingredients that probably should have been notified, but were not. Our research also found products on New Zealand shelves that contain carbon nanostructures called fullerenes. These have been described by a UK Royal Commission as “potentially harmful” and one of the four most worrying nanomaterials. In Europe, members of the primary cosmetics industry association have pledged no use until more is known about their safety.

Eight months later, government agencies have no plan to ensure compliance with the reporting requirement and do not intend to pursue businesses over non-complying products. The fullerene products remain on shelves, still unnotified.

With Government on snooze mode, New Zealanders are left to fend for themselves. Labelling of nanocosmetic ingredients is not required, manufacturers are not always forthcoming about their use, and the few notifications to the regulator are only accessible with difficulty, if at all.

Another bright line test of whether Government is on the job comes in the form of materials called carbon nanotubes that have attracted early warnings for their potential to cause significant harm.

Some nanotubes are similar in form to asbestos fibres and research has demonstrated that these may cause similar damage and disease to the lungs. The evidence thus far is preliminary, but it supports treating nanotubes as if they are hazardous.

One would expect the association with asbestos would make Government vigilant. The awful toll asbestos is taking was largely preventable and ultimately a failure of governance: ignoring early warnings, hopelessly belated regulatory responses, and privileging immediate economic interests over public health. Today, over a hundred people in New Zealand die each year due to asbestos exposure and, according to 2008 figures, at least $14 million is paid out annually from ACC coffers for workplace exposure cases alone.

Still the regulator has deemed the current evidence on nanotubes insufficient to merit action and is waiting to see what Australia will do.

Applying old chemistry to new technologies – commercialise first, and ask questions later – will not serve New Zealand’s economy, public health or environment well in the long run. Nor does it serve business or innovation well, despite some advocacy for a light regulatory touch. Proper governance brings predictability, accountability, trust and (notably for developers) insurability.

As much as anything, smart innovation requires smart governance. New Zealand could pioneer cutting-edge polices and law that channel nanotechnologies for the good and create incentives to develop and deploy least-risk highest-benefit technologies. On current course, it will not. So a New Year’s note to Government: Start sweating the really small stuff.

Featured in The Press, February 15 2011.

Stephanie Howard is Projects Director of the Sustainability Council of New Zealand