"There is a gap in the current regulation of nanoparticles," said Ann Dowling, chair of the working group that carried out the study. "They have different properties from the same chemical in larger form, but currently their production does not trigger additional testing. It is important that the regulations are tightened up so that nanoparticles are assessed, both in terms of testing and labelling, as new chemicals."

The report proposes that UK and European legislation should treat nanoparticles and nanotubes as new chemicals. In addition, it recommends avoiding "as far as possible" the release of such nanomaterials into the environment until more is known about their impact, and that the UK's Health and Safety Executive considers setting lower exposure levels for people who work with manufactured nanoparticles.

"The lack of evidence about the risk posed by manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes is resulting in considerable uncertainty," states the report. With this in mind, it suggests that a new interdisciplinary centre should research the "toxicity, epidemiology, persistence and bioaccumulation of manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes as well as their exposure pathways" and instruments for monitoring the materials in the environment. It's likely that such a centre would bring together several existing research institutions.

Nanoparticles and nanotubes should also be approved by an independent scientific safety committee before their use in consumer products such as cosmetics, according to the study. And industry should make details of its nanomaterial safety tests publicly available if the toxicological data available in peer-reviewed journals is incomplete.

In addition, the working group proposes a public dialogue about the development of nanotechnologies "before deeply entrenched or polarized positions appear". Market research conducted during the course of the study indicated that only 29% of the UK population had heard of nanotechnology.

The UK government commissioned the two bodies to conduct a study on nanotechnology back in June 2003. According to UK science minister David Sainsbury, the government plans to respond formally to the report by the end of the year.

The UK Health and Safety Laboratory is holding a conference on the occupational health implications of nanomaterials in October.