With more than 350 nanoproducts already on the market, it is time for a research program that fully addresses concerns about the safety of nanotechnology.
While the fear that nanotechnology could be a ‘new GM’ has been around for ten years, little has been done to prevent this from happening. Even in the US, where one can expect regulatory power to exist, and in the UK, where the government has sent a team of experts to produce the most talked about report it was published in 2004, the response has been slow.
This is worrying because there are many reasons why these concerns should be addressed, including the need to prevent health and environmental hazards, social acceptance, and maintaining investor confidence.
The Emerging Nanotechnologies project, an independent group based at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, has been working to raise the issue at the top of the agenda. In July the project’s chief scientific adviser, Andrew Maynard, published a plan to address the environmental, health and safety impacts on nanotechnologies, and last month Maynard and 13 colleagues from the US, UK and Germany identified a series of five major challenges in ensuring the construction of safe nanotechnologies (Environment 444, 267-269; 2006).
“The scientific community needs to take action now if strategic research will support sustainable nanotechnolgies, where risks are reduced and profits are increased,” they wrote. “If the global research community can take advantage of these situations and address the challenges we have set, then we can look forward to the availability of safe nanotechnologies.”
A small selection of many nanoproducts is already on the market.
The five challenges, which come with time scales but no budget, seem achievable.
However, The First challenge
Making instruments to test the exposure of nanomaterials to engine and water, over the next 3 to 3 years – shows the difficulties that existed. It is not just the size and shape of the appropriate particles – the composition, surface chemistry, melting and various other factors also need to be considered. In addition, monitors that can detect nanoparticles in the air will not work in water, and vice versa.
That is to say, the latest and most technological advances in technology, including nanotechnology, should be able to eliminate these problems.
The second challenge –
Developing and validating toxicity testing methods for engineered nanomaterials – is similar to the first, but with the added difficulty that various experiments from this work will have to be available worldwide in order to be effective. The third and fourth challenges are related to the fact that they call for models that can predict the impact of nanoparticles produced on the environment and human health, and methods that can look at the impact of nanoproducts throughout their life cycle. In many ways these two challenges are very important.
The long-term goal is not to develop methods that can predict and measure the health and environmental impact of all possible nanoparticle and nanomaterial potential. Instead, the design of nanoproducts is guaranteed to be safe from initial production to disposal.
Given the magnitude of the first four tasks, the final challenge – to make strategic plans that allow for appropriate risk-based research, over the next 12 months – may seem modest, but it is important if every effort is successful.
Maynard and co-authors emphasize the need to communicate research findings on the risks and benefits to decision makers and consumers. Indeed, research has already begun in this area and on page 153 Steve Currall and his colleagues report the results of preliminary art research on how consumers view the risks and benefits of nanotechnology.
The message from this and other similar activities is that consumers are more willing to accept risks if technology brings real benefits, which should be good news for nanotechnology.