Nanotechnology: The Challenge of Regulating Known Unknowns

11 Pages Posted: 27 Jan 2007


Nanotechnology is a subject about which we know less than we should, but probably more than we think we do at first glance. Like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "known unknowns," we have learned enough to know what we should be concerned with. Glimmers of risk cropped up recently when German authorities recalled after 3 days on the market a bathroom cleansing product, "MagicNano," which sent six people to the hospital with pulmonary edema. Latching onto the risks posed to workers producing materials using nanotechnology, the Washington Post has labeled it a "seat-of-the pants occupational health experiment." A clear-eyed evaluation of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology is complicated by a very complex science - pushing the envelope of materials science - and by a venture capitalist- like hype about the potential of nanotechnology.

This article examines our emerging knowledge base about the hazards of nano-sized particles (NSPs), focusing on risks posed by two types of exposure, inhalation of NSPs and topical application of products containing NSPs. It examines why the current regulatory framework is inadequate to respond to these risks and why regulators believe their hands are tied until new legislation is enacted. It then argues that this regulatory inaction leaves a significant role for the private insurance market, but that regulators should support this market in tangible ways, such as requiring federal grant recipients to carry commercial liability policies that would protect the public from potential adverse consequences.

Suggested Citation

Wilson, Robin Fretwell, Nanotechnology: The Challenge of Regulating Known Unknowns. Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter 2006; Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 2007-10. Available at SSRN:

Robin Fretwell Wilson (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States
217.244.7582 (Phone)


Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics