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Implications of Nanotechnology for Environmental Health Research
Because of the lack of knowledge the media often interprets scientific findings related to toxicity of one nanomaterial and paints everything in one color—implying that one result can be extrapolated to the entire array of nanomaterials regardless of size or other important properties specific to a particular nanomaterial. It is challenging to communicate the risk effectively without a precise nomenclature; therefore, the scientific community needs to establish a nomenclature in which the language is clear and specific so that journalists and the public can understand the benefits and risks of various materials.
Researchers are also dependent on nomenclature. A scientist who publishes his or her research or reviews the literature about a substance with which they are working needs to know that the particle in their experiment is equivalent to the particles in other research papers. Another group that is reliant on nomenclature is regulators. To write a regulation, a chemical abstract service registry number is useful but it is not sufficient because a regulator needs to be specific about what they are trying to regulate. Otherwise, it is very difficult to analyze the impact of the regulation and to enforce the regulation. It will take a joint effort of different agencies and groups to work on the issue of naming and to establish a precise and clear nomenclature in the filed of nanotechnology.
There are multiple agencies in the United States and other countries of the world that are concerned with nanotechnology and risk assessment. Many countries are committed to assessment of risks but the means to do so have not been developed yet. The risk–benefit equation in nanotechnology is likely to be very complicated. At one end of the spectrum, there are potentially life-saving drugs and medical devices where the only risk might be to the person whose life is being saved; at the other end of the spectrum, there are materials that are being used in cosmetics and other relatively insignificant applications. The government needs to examine closely the benefits and risks of nanotechnology and agencies involved in decision making need to find out if nanomaterials with little societal benefit and some risk to environmental health should be allowed to be introduced into the environment.
During the workshop, the participants suggested that the train has not left the station yet, i.e., that technology is newly emerging and opportunities exist to address environmental health concerns before there is a wide-scale release. While it is true that some of these trains have not left the station, other trains appear to have already left, and the problem is that we do not know enough about what kind of freight these trains are carrying and the risks associated with unloading them. Some of the nanomaterials such as semiconductors are already in the commercial marketplace and some of them are going to go into waste, water, and the environment. To identify the environmental and health hazards of these