publifocus (2006)


Opportunities and risks of nanotechnologies

Nanotechnologies are described as the key technology of the 21st century. We have to assume that they will bring dramatic changes to our everyday lives, and will also impact on the environment. There are already over 200 nanoproducts and some 600 nanomaterials or additives on the global market. In Switzerland, too, there are sun creams and toothpastes that contain nanoparticles, and the antibacterial effect in some fabrics and toys is the result of nanotechnology. In the future, drugs, for example, could target cancer cells directly, or materials that are micro-sized insulators but nanosized conductors could be used as efficient energy carriers. It seems that the potential applications are boundless. The International Association of Nanotechnology has estimated that in 2006 global investment in nano research and development will amount to around 4.3 billion US dollars. So naturally, “nano” has also become a good selling point. But just because it says “nano” on the label (as with the “iPod Nano”, or “Nano-Magic” household spray), it does not necessarily mean that there is actually any “nano” inside.

But at the same time, there are also some products that contain nano-sized substances but do not specifically declare them. Regulations about handling nanoparticles still have to be formulated. In Switzerland, the FOPH and the FOEN are developing an “Action plan on synthetic nanoparticles 2006 – 2009”. There is an urgent need for this, because toxicological studies on synthetically produced nanoparticles have indicated possible health risks. What may be harmless as a microparticle (one millionth of a metre in size) may have serious effects on human beings and the environment as a nanoparticle. Researchers, industrialists, government agencies and insurers are, however, unanimous: much more research has to be done in the nanoscience and nanotechnology fields on the possible toxicity of certain nanoparticles and the consequent potential risks for human beings and the environment.

Nanotechnological developments have the potential to change key areas of life in our society over the coming years and decades. This will also impact on ecological systems. As yet, there is little public awareness about nanotechnologies. In Switzerland, too, it is only recently that a coordinated approach has been initiated to takle questions of regulation. Political groups are paying close attention to the technical developments. Studies help to weigh up the opportunities and risks. Any legislation that may be necessary, however, must also take the views of the population into account. How do so-called “laypersons” perceive the nanotech debate? Where do citizens see opportunities for themselves, their health and the environment? And where do the possible risks lie? Does nanoresearch cross ethical boundaries? Is there a need for regulation or a standardised declaration? These are questions that TA-SWISS wanted to discuss with randomly selected citizen groups. Publifocus events are to be held in all parts of the country during September 2006.


The participants’ views – the results of the publifocus events, that is – are compiled into a report. This will be published towards the end of 2006 with the aim of informing interested members of the public – and members of parliament, as it is they who will have to decide whether there is likely to be any need for legislation as a result of developments in nanoscience and nanotechnology and their applications.

Media information
11.12.06 Lay thinking about nanotechnologies and what follows from it



Further links



Project supported by

  • Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH)
  • Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN)
  • Zurich University of Applied Sciences Winterthur (ZHW)
  • Centre for Technology Assessment (TA-SWISS)

Supervisory group

  • Prof. Philipp U. Heitz, Member of the TA-SWISS Steering Committee, Au/ZH (chairman of the supervisory group)
  • Prof. Dr Ueli Aebi, Member of the TA-SWISS Steering Committee, structural biologist, NCCR Nanoscale Science, Biozentrum, University of Basel
  • Dr Sergio Bellucci, Managing Director, Centre for Technology Assessment (TA-SWISS), Bern
  • Dr Stefan Durrer, Department of Chemicals and Labour, State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (seco), Bern/Zurich
  • Dr Thomas Epprecht, Risk Engineering Services, Swiss Re, Zurich
  • Prof. Dr Peter Gehr, Director, Institute of Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine of the University of Bern
  • Brigit Hofer, Economic Policy/Sustainability, COOP Switzerland, Basel
  • Prof. Dr Georg Karlaganis, Head of Substances, Soil, Biotechnology Division, Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Bern
  • Dr Hans G. Kastenholz, Head of Innovation and Technical Analysis, Technology and Society Laboratory, Empa, St Gall
  • Alain Kaufmann, Member of the TA-SWISS Steering Committee, Director of Interface Sciences - Société, University of Lausanne
  • Prof. Heinrich Kuhn, Head of Competence Centre for Safety and Risk Prevention (KSR), Zurich University of Applied Sciences Winterthur (ZHW), Winterthur
  • Dr Monika Kurath, Scientist/PostDoc, Collegium Helveticum Federal Institute of Technology (FIT) Zurich and Programme for Scientific Research/Sociology at the University of Basel
  • Christa Markwalder Bär, FDP Member of the National Council, Burgdorf
  • Christian Pohl, network for transdisciplinarity in sciences and humanities (td-net), Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences (scnat), Bern
  • Dr Klaus Peter Rippe, Managing Director, Ethik im Diskurs GmbH, Zurich
  • Urs Spahr, Biological Safety Section, Biomedicine Division, Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), Bern
  • Christof Studer, Industrial Chemicals Section, Substances, Soil, Biotechnology Division, Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Bern
  • Barbara Vonarburg, Editorial Manager, “Wissen”, Tages-Anzeiger, Zurich
  • Josianne Walpen, Project Manager, Food/Cosmetics Division, Foundation for Consumer Protection, Bern
  • Steffen Wengert, Head of Commercial Materials Section, Chemicals Division, Consumer Protection Directorate, Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), Bern

Project mandataries

  • Dr Herbert Cerutti, Scientific journalist, editor of information brochure
  • Lucienne Rey, Texterey, recorder of publifocus events and editor of final report  

order publication