Broadly considered, there’s probably no field of applied scientific research and development with implications as profound and far-reaching as nanotechnology. Governments and industry are pumping billions into developing nano-engineered materials that may one day in the not to distant future completely overturn the manufacturing of an incredibly wide range of products, from semiconductors and solar cells through weapons and drug delivery systems to everyday food, health and cosmetics products.
While fears of self-replicating, communicative nano-materials a billionth of a meter in size running amok and threatening our environment, health and safety have proven rich ground for science fiction, the broad public appears to be relatively uninformed and unconcerned about the potential threats. That’s not the case among scientists and public interest groups, however.
Based on a national telephone survey of American households and 363 leading nanotechnology scientists and engineers, a November 2007 report by the University of Wisconsin’s professor of life sciences communication and journalism Dietram A. Scheufele and Arizona State University’s Elizabeth Corley of Arizona State University’s Center for Nanotechnology indicates that research into the potential threats nanotech poses to the environment, health and safety is so sparse that research community itself doesn’t know, much less can be certain of, the risks involved.
“It’s starting to emerge on the policy agenda, but with the public, it’s not on their radar,” Scheufele said of the findings. “That’s where we have the largest communication gap…Scientists aren’t saying there are problems. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t know. The research hasn’t been done.’”
In the meantime, hundreds of nano-engineered materials, such as nano-titanium dioxide, are literally entering our food chain. Friends of the Earth Australia just released a new report entitled, Out of the laboratory and on to our plates: Nanotechnology in food and agriculture” that reveals “that at least 104 food, food packaging and agricultural products containing nano-ingredients are now on sale internationally,” including “diet replacement milkshakes, cooking oil, tea and fortified fruit juice; food additives sold for use in processed meats, soft drinks, bakery and dairy products; long-life and antibacterial food packaging; and antibacterial kitchenware. FoE is calling for a halt to the introduction and sale of nanomaterials given the unknown toxic risks they pose to environmental and human health until they can be shown to be safe.
Nano Risk Assessment
According to Kathy Jo Wetter of the ETC Group, “There is a virtual consensus among scientists that the toxicology of engineered nano-materials is largely unknown, and that toxicity data cannot be extrapolated from existing toxicology studies conducted on larger-scale materials.
“In short, we don’t know what accumulated amounts of any human-made nano-material will do in our lungs or our livers or our guts, even if we do know how bigger particles of the same material behave in our bodies. The closest thing we have to go on is our experience with similarly-sized ultra-fine particulate matter in air pollution, and no toxicologist in the world is arguing for the benign nature of air pollution.”
Scientists and public interest groups argue that the unique and very different properties of nano-scale materials as compared to their conventional counterparts necessitates that they be approved and regulated separately. U.S. government agencies, to this point, have not seen it this way.
“None of the US agencies anticipates new regulations for nano though most have published some kind of white paper outlining their posture. EPA is committed to the success of its voluntary Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program, which just formally launched one month ago,” noted Kristen M. Kulinowski, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology and director of the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON) at Rice University.
“Companies using or producing nano-materials generally believe that the existing regulatory frameworks in place for toxic chemicals, pesticides, particulates, etc. can be applied to nano-materials without additional regulation,” she observed.
Calls for New, Stronger Regulation
Public interest groups are pushing for new and stronger legislation and regulation. “The early warning signs surrounding nano-toxicity are serious and warrant a precautionary approach to the commercialization of all products containing nano-materials,” maintains Ian Illuminato of Friends of the Earth.
“Friends of the Earth believes there should be a moratorium on the further commercial release of products that contain engineered nano-materials, and the withdrawal of such products currently on the market, until adequate public, peer-reviewed safety studies have been completed, and adequate regulations have been put in place to protect the general public, the workers manufacturing these products and the environmental systems in which waste products will be released.”
“Academics focus less on regulatory issues – except us! – but are following the increasing funding streams for nano EHS (environment, health and safety) research,” Kulinowski added. “There are several public-private partnerships in formation now to address various aspects of nano-EHS: one is being led by the National Institutes of health and another by the Food and Drug Administration. The scope of these PPPs and the level of industry engagement are still in question.
“The challenges are myriad and stem from the diversity and tunability of nano-materials,” she continued. “It’s a double-edged sword: the flexibility chemists have to tinker with the properties of these particles to produce a functional material for a new application may also result in new and potentially harmful modes of interaction with living systems. Yet we have no models that can predict this biological or environmental behavior based on parameters that can be easily measured, such as physical and chemical properties.
“What is needed are a lot more data and the development of predictive models for use in risk assessment. We’re at least ten years away from this goal. So in the meantime, researchers must test each different variant individually and throughout the product lifecycle to try and assess risk,” Kulinowski told Triple Pundit.