Nanotechnology is developing at a tremendous rate, but scientists do not yet know what risk these tiny particles could pose to human health and the environment.
Leading researchers have clubbed together to draw up harmonised nano research standards – a first worldwide. The international initiative was launched in Zurich on Tuesday.
The International Alliance for NanoEHS Harmonisation (IANH) involves universities and organisations from Europe, the United States and Japan. Switzerland is represented by the Federal Materials, Science and Technology Institute (Empa).
It was unveiled on the sidelines of the Nanotox 2008 conference, on nanotechnology and risks, currently taking place in Zurich.
"The implication of not understanding things could lead to uncertainty on how to regulate and also to public concern. That's why we feel the need to harmonise our activities," Kenneth Dawson, the new IANH chair, told a media conference.
"There are currently no standard test protocols in worldwide use - that's quite contrary to the situation in many other areas of science and medicine where public health issues are involved," he added.
Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of atoms and molecules, at dimensions of roughly one millionth of a millimetre – 1000s of times smaller than the width of a human hair.
It is expected to reap huge benefits – such as faster computers and more efficient mobile phones. Having smaller objects means that electrons inside them travel faster so everything works more speedily, explained Dawson.
In medicine experts may be able to develop therapies that have not yet been possible, such as cell repair machines.
However, concerns have been raised that these small particles could be harmful. A British study published earlier this year - also highlighted at the Nanotox conference - suggested that some forms of carbon nanotubes could be as harmful as asbestos if inhaled in sufficient quantities.
Andre Nel of the University of California at Los Angeles, an IANH member, told swissinfo that risks to humans could come from ingested or inhaled materials or those that come into contact with skin. "We have to ensure that the introduction of materials does not lead to adverse health outcomes," he said.
He added that the second area of concern was that, as with every new technology introduced, nanotechnology might end up in the environment and pose risks to life forms there.
The voluntary initiative focuses on generating test protocols that can be uniformly applied to the hazard assessment and risk ranking of specialised engineered nanomaterials that are of most immediate use to society.
These protocols would be validated by "round robins", meaning that IANH members would receive identical materials on which to apply the same tests.
These - and the protocols - would then be shared within the scientific community. This transparent process, said the experts, should give scientific back-up to governments who are keen to push nanotechnology but want reassurances that it can be done safely and sustainably.
Harald Krug of Empa said that the scheme was a good match to the Swiss government's nanotech action plan, launched last year.
"Empa is involved in materials testing. We are experts especially in round robin testing and this is a wonderful opportunity to be a member," he told swissinfo.
Switzerland is one of the countries at the forefront of nanotech research. Krug himself was the driving force behind the four-day Nanotox conference – the largest ever to consider risks posed by nanotechnology. There has also been considerable Swiss investment in the new technology.
Earlier this year it was announced that the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich would join forces with computer giant IBM to build a $90 million (SFr102 million) state-of-the-art nanotechnology research laboratory near to the city.
swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich
A nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre.
Nanoscience and nanotechnology encompass a range of techniques rather than a single discipline and stretch across the scientific spectrum, touching on medicine, physics, engineering and chemistry.
The size and scale of the nanotechnology industry is unclear in Switzerland. One reason is that there is no international standard definition of the science, making it hard to determine whether companies use nanotechnology or not.
A 2004 report by the Royal Society in Britain estimated research and development on nanotechnology to be worth some SFr1.57 billion ($1.5 billion) a year in Europe.
This compares with $800 million in Japan in 2003, $3.7 billion for a US project lasting from 2005 to 2008 (excluding defence expenditure) and a pledge from the British government to spend $78.5 million a year on nanotechnology between 2003 and 2009.
Nanotox 2008, a four-day conference which runs until September 10, is the biggest international conference of nanotoxicologists to date.
Scientists from 29 countries are taking part.
It is being held at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and is organised by The Federal Materials, Science and Technology Institute (Empa). Empa is associated with the Federal Institute.