Thinking Big About Nanotech

Government oversight, best practices from business leaders, and full disclosure of research findings are all necessary for the science to advance

Nanotechnology, the science of small heralded as the next big thing, seeks to understand and control matter on a scale smaller than 1 micrometer, normally 1 nanometer to 100 nanometers. The technology has the potential to improve quality of life but may also cause harm. It poses great challenges to the governments, researchers, and corporations seeking to harness it.

Scores of commercial products—from paints to medicines to food—are being developed with nanoparticles taken from carbon, silver, and a huge range of other commonplace materials that have exotic properties, such as exceptional strength or electrical conductivity. Intel (INTC), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and IBM (IBM) are just a handful of the big companies hoping to unlock nanotech's potential.

However, more than 100 years of industrial experience show that exposure to other particles such as coal dust or silica can cause serious, potentially fatal diseases. The risk of ill health depends on the toxicity of the material and the length and level of exposure. Under some circumstances, nanoparticles may also have an adverse health impact.

Unanswered Questions and Challenges

Among the questions raised by this prospect: How toxic are these materials and in what context? Is there sufficient exposure of workers or consumers to cause adverse health effects? Do nanomaterials require new methods of disposal?

As of now, there are few answers. Over the last three years, more than 25 national and international reviews have been published by regulators, government departments, insurance organizations, and researchers. All point to a lack of knowledge concerning these questions. Only a system that combines commonsense government oversight, best practices from business leaders, and full disclosure of research findings can answer these questions in a way that lets nanotechnology advance to its full potential.

Regulatory authorities throughout the world have been slow to acknowledge the potential challenges posed by these new materials. Few, if any, regulatory regimes differentiate between approved materials in bulk and nanoscale form. Given the concern about the lack of available risk-related research, and the increasing range of nanoproducts appearing on the market, it's hard to argue that regulators have been as involved as they need to be. There is clearly a balance to strike here. Overzealous oversight (or the threat of it) could stymie innovation. But failure to act promptly could lead to significantly enhanced risks to the public and the environment, and a resulting failure of confidence in the emerging nanotech industry.

Industry Participation Is Critical

The Environmental Protection Agency in July said it will investigate the use of nanomaterials to determine whether they fall under the authority of the Toxic Substances Control Act. Part of its inquiry is a voluntary stewardship program that asks manufacturers to hand over appropriate information. While this attempt to collect information is laudable, it does not go far enough in compelling participation. Want proof? In Britain, a similar approach has attracted only nine submissions since 2005.

Instead of asking the industry to volunteer, these programs should encourage—through funding and other incentives—more risk-assessment research and sharing of available data.

Better oversight can only succeed when coupled with better industry participation, wherein manufacturers actively gather and distribute findings on nano risk. A recent publication of a nano risk framework by DuPont (DD) and Environmental Defense provides an excellent model for the type of approach that could be adopted and the type of information needed.

This approach, unfortunately, is the exception rather than the rule. In Zurich last year, a Federal Institute of Technology survey of 32 Swiss and German manufacturers using nanoparticles revealed that only two had investigated the effects of particle absorption by living organisms.

Corporate Responsibility

Corporate leaders often deem the fruits of corporate research proprietary. And in the case of nanotechnology, research can contain manufacturers' data on the exact composition of nanomaterials they use. That is their competitive advantage, and they shouldn't have to divulge trade secrets. But corporations should find ways to enhance public sector knowledge without divulging those secrets.

Corporations can work with government and independent researchers to establish research centers or resources where standard information about toxicity levels and exposure intensity can be shared. Regulatory bodies can share such information without compromising corporate secrets. If the information is protected, there is no reason for corporations to refuse.

Another part of the solution is for nanotech business trade associations to develop robust codes of conduct, including data sharing, and shared best practices in manufacturing and assessment. With commonly accepted and credible information firmly in place, it becomes easier to expand on that research.

If the business community comes together to identify the exact toxicity of certain materials, it can better inform regulatory bodies and avoid overregulation.

Toward Global Consensus

In an ever-shrinking (nano) world, a global approach is necessary to build a universally accepted body of knowledge that addresses the benefits and risks of commercialized nanomaterials in all regions. Public and private sectors engaging each other in their respective regions and across the globe can codify the research for application worldwide.

One such example of global collaboration is the Safenano Initiative, a project I direct that is co-funded by Scottish Enterprise, the economic development agency of the Scottish government. Safenano's role is to collect, interpret, and disseminate the best available information about nanoparticle risk issues and to help companies quantify and mitigate potential risks from nanomaterials. We collaborate with researchers from around the world to report independent research that can move us toward consensus. The more avenues the nanotechnology sector has to jointly sponsor conferences across the globe and the more forums we have to share information and debate its veracity, the better.

Yes, nanotechnology will yield great benefit for global society. As the science matures further, the possibilities will continue to unfold. But the excitement should not supplant the necessary research process. The hype must be tempered with realism. Much more needs to be done by the public and private sectors to qualify the potential risks so we can advance products to market more responsibly.

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