The EU yesterday launched a consultation on a voluntary code of conduct researchers and companies can use when developing nanotechnolgy products.
Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter at near atomic scales to create new processes, materials and devices. Although it has been touted as the next revolution in many industries, including food manufacturing and packaging, public concerns have been raised over the potential health or environmental hazards nanotechnology may pose.
In formulating the code the European Commission called on scientists, industry, policy-makers, media and the general public to contribute to the growing debate about the benefits and potential harmful effects of the technology.
The code could also foreshadow a move to regulate the sector, once the impact on health and the environment become known.
Janez Potonik, the European commissioner for science and research said code is needed to encourage the growth of nanotech research in the bloc.
"Nanosciences and nanotechnologies have the potential to drive growth and jobs in Europe, and their development and use should not be delayed, unbalanced or left to chance" he said. "It is important that we pursue this knowledge with full understanding of the possible implications of these new areas of science, and that we do so openly and involving all concerned."
Forecasts of the market for nanotech products vary wildly. The Mitsubishi Institute forecasts a market of €110bn by 2010 while Lux Research projects €1.9 trillion.
The estimated worldwide public funding for nanotechnology research and development rose to €5bn in 2006 from €3.3bn in 2004.
In publishng the consultation, the European Commission said that the code would address nanoscience issues, related to properties such as the minuscule size of particles, their ability to cross natural bio-boundaries or potential to connect living creatures and man-made materials and systems.
"Therefore the responsible management and control of nano-sciences has become a very specific region of the science and technology landscape in the last decade, particularly as regards ethics, safety and environment and the fundamental rights of individuals, such as the protection of personal data," the Commission stated.
The code of conduct would express basic principles on which to base future developments within nanotechnology research, the Commission stated.
An ETH Zurich survey released earlier this year found that Europeans are willing to buy foods produced, processed or packaged using nanotechnology techniques so long as they perceive the benefits.
The study indicates that processors will have to communicate the benefits of nanotechnology when deciding to process or package foods using such techniques.
The danger is that such products may face a public reaction against the science, as is occurring with genetically modified food products.
The Swiss researchers concluded that the perceived benefits of nanotechnology seem to be the most important predictors for willingness to buy foods processed or packaged using the techniques.
The deadline for comments on the European Commission proposed code is 21 September.