If you ask Canadian entrepreneur Neil Gordon about new rules coming next month requiring companies to detail their use of engineered nanomaterials, he'll tell you it's just another example of his government placing artificial constraints on nanotech commercialization.
That's why Gordon is now the ex-president of the now-defunct Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance.
"If Canada is becoming the first government in the world to require companies to provide information about their use of 'potentially' harmful nanomaterials in products, then there is another reason for entrepreneurs to avoid commercializing nanotechnology products in Canada," said Gordon, who is now president and CEO of Early Warning Inc., which is commercializing a nanotech-based biosensor.
But ask science adviser Andrew Maynard about Canada's first-in-the-world nanotech regulations, and he'll tell you how they are exactly what is needed now -- before too many companies use nanotechnology in their products. Maynard advises the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) in Washington, which focuses on the environmental, health and ethical implications of nanotechnology.
The rules are needed, he said, even though available toxicity information on some engineered nanomaterials is "patchy."
"But even patchy information is going to be more helpful to developing informed future regulations, than no information," Maynard said.
The rules, instituted by Environment Canada, are expected to come out in February, according to a news release issued by PEN earlier this week.
Canadian companies that manufactured or imported 1 kg or more of engineered nanoparticles in 2008 will be required to provide information about how the substance is used or managed and any existing data on their physical or chemical properties. It is a one-time requirement. The Canadian government will then use the information to evaluate possible risks to the public and the environment.
The regulations would be in line with a proposed regulatory framework released by Environment Canada and Health Canada in September 2007.
One problem with the rule, Gordon said, is that there are not too many Canadian nanotech companies around to regulate. And these rules could be the nail in the coffin.
"I have observed first-hand how the Canadian government had ignored the massive economic development opportunity from nanotechnology," he said.
"The Canadian government’s informal nanotechnology policy of allocating its limited nanotechnology funding almost exclusivity to government labs and government-owned universities has created a void of Canadian nanotechnology companies which for the most part are struggling to survive or have left Canada."
It is important to remember, too, Gordon said, that the question is not simply which substances are toxic, but also whether they are toxic in the small amounts used inside nanotech products.
Many of the current research on nanoparticle toxicity expose test animals to artificially high amounts of nanomaterials.
"A fish can die from eating too much fish food," Gordon said. "If the amount of nanoparticles in a product are at some miniscule level, as is typical for nano products, then the risk must account for what is really being used -- not some artificially high amount."
But it is just this shortage of information on nanoparticles that makes these rules needed, Maynard indicated.
"This decision by Canada -- to establish the world's first national mandatory nanoscale materials reporting program for companies -- is an important step toward ensuring that nanotechnology regulation is driven by accurate information and high-quality science," he said in a news release.