Preparing for Nanotechnology: Health, Policy, and Emerging Issues1
In recent years, nanoparticles (particles in the size range of 0.1 nm to 500 nm) have received considerable attention from both science and industry as new information about these particles and their potential societal benefits. Nanoparticles fall into three major groups: natural, incidental, and engineered (see Table 1-1), noted Vickie Colvin, Rice University. Naturally-occurring nanomaterials such as volcanic ash, ocean spray, magnetotactic bacteria, mineral composites, and others are ubiquitously present in the environment. Incidental nanoparticles are often by-products produced as a result of industrial processes. The third category of nanoparticles is engineered nanoparticles. These are materials that have been specifically designed for function, such as fullerene C60, which is used for fuel cell applications.
Nanotechnology is a broad description that is given to processes and technologies used to produce materials which are purposely engineered through the manipulation of atoms. The central tenet of nanotechnology is that almost any chemically stable structure that does not violate existing physical law can be built. By utilizing the basic properties of atoms, scientists have been able to precisely fabricate structures to create less bulky, stronger products and applications.
There are four basic categories of nanoscale materials that are being sold as commercial products and materials that may need to be regulated. The metal oxides—such as ceramics from oxides of zinc, iron, cerium, and zirconium; chemical polishing agents from semi-conductor wafers; scratch resistant coatings for glass; and cosmetics and sunscreens—are the biggest group of current commercial nanomaterials. Another group of nanomaterials used in commerce is nanoclays. Nanoclays are naturally-occurring plate-like clay particles that
TABLE 1-1 Major Groups of Nanoparticles
Arthropods, fish, birds,
human brain, [meteorite]
Forest fire smoke
Ferritin (12.5 nm)
(1-75 nm, plasma) Clouds
>500 peer-reviewed publications
>10,000 peer-reviewed publications
~ 50 overall
SOURCE: Oberdörster, unpublished. Reprinted with permission.
improve strength, harness, heat resistance and flame retardancy of materials and are used to produce barrier films in plastic beverage bottles, paper juice cartons, and tennis balls. The third group is nanotubes that are used in coatings to dissipate and minimize static electricity in fuel lines and hard disk handling trays; they can also be found in electrostatically paintable car exterior components, flame-retardant fillers for plastics, and field emitter sources in flat panel displays. The fourth group is quantum dots used in exploratory medical diagnostics and therapeutics and self assembly of nanoelectronic structures.
ISSUES IN NANOTECHNOLOGY INVOLVING ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH SAFETY
Today the public is more educated, involved, and concerned about new technologies and industrial processes and their potential effect on human health and the environment than it was 50 or 60 years ago, said Kenneth Olden of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The potential health and environmental effects of nanoparticles and nanomaterials today raises public concern about nanotechnology. Health agencies in the United States have the responsibility to provide leadership to ensure the thorough assessment of safety and environmental effects of the new technologies as well as to communicate openly and clearly about the issues. Some of the new technologies, such as
genetically modified foods, are not well accepted by the public worldwide because health agencies did not involve and educate the public and policy makers in the beginning when the technology was being developed, stated Olden. Scientists and the government need to learn from this experience and ensure that this does not happen with other emerging technologies, observed Olden.
Recently, nanotechnology has received considerable attention from the media. Most of the initial reports have been positive because of its potential applications in molecular medicine and communication. However, we should not forget that given the nature of nanoparticles, not all nanomaterials will be benign. Therefore, it is very important to identify the negative aspects of the technology before we introduce it to the marketplace. Otherwise, it would set us back for a number of years, said Olden.
Most of the initial reports (in the media) have been positive; however, we should not forget that given the nature of nanoparticles, not all nanomaterials will be benign.
Toxicology research on nanotechnology (engineered nanoparticles) has no history so we will have to start from scratch. We are just at the beginning of this effort and it will take a lot of thoughtful consideration and planning to achieve positive results without wasting time and resources, concluded Olden. Such effects are beginning and are described in Chapter 4.
NANOTECHNOLOGY: POLICY IMPLICATIONS
Policy makers must ensure that nanotechnology is developed as a safe consumer product, said David Rejeski of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Many of the governmental regulatory frameworks we have today were conceived 30–40 years ago, when nanotechnology did not yet exist and therefore do not specifically address the unique properties of nanomaterials. One issue is that people do not always trust the government to enforce the regulations, said Rejeski. What matters to the protection of public health and the environment is not regulation per se but the enforcement of regulation. Unlike genetically modified organisms (GMOs) where only a segregated sector is involved and risk prevention is more manageable, the impacts of nanotechnology will not be confined to one sector, but will be seen across multiple sectors and multiple products. Given the large investments in applied research it is not unreasonable that we could see 30–50 new nano-products appearing every month as more and more research bears fruit and companies drive toward commercialization. Rejeski suggested that nanotechnology development could encounter four plausible near-term scenarios that could make nanotechnology either a liability or an asset. He called these scenarios: “tipping scales,” “nano Bhopal,” “Hollywood wins,” and “old Europe.”
“Tipping scales” and “nano Bhopal.” Nanotechnology is planned disruption: it is all about the search for novelty. If we have the ability to extract radically new properties and behaviors from existing chemicals and substances, we need to be careful about asserting that we can use past knowledge to predict future consequences. Policy makers have to bear in mind that nanotechnology is being developed globally, and not only in industrialized countries but also in developing countries that do not have strict regulations even for conventional chemicals. Therefore, there is a good possibility that an accidental exposure or release may happen in a developing country, a small business, or a research lab. Such an accident does not have to be on the scale of the 1984 Bhopal chemical plant disaster that occurred in India to attract global press coverage and provide a public backlash against nanotechnology. This scenario cannot be ruled out and it must be addressed. Many small businesses are receiving large amounts of venture capital investment and their main goal is to get product to market as fast as possible. If they cut corners in this process, mistakes could happen and tip the scale to the negative side of the public’s perception of the entire industry (not just the specific technology involved). One way to guard against this kind of scenario is to use transnational corporations to encourage the responsible development and use of nanotechnology across their entire supply chain. Today, the scales of public opinion for or against nanotechnology could tip either way, said Rejeski, because the benefits of nanotechnology are not yet widely appreciated by the public and the negative consequences have received more press coverage.
Many of the governmental regulatory frameworks we have today were conceived 30–40 years ago, when nanotechnology did not yet exist and therefore do not specifically address the unique properties of nanomaterials.
“Hollywood scenario.” Policy makers have to think of deeper social messages people receive from films, books, and games about what to trust and distrust in society and what and how things may go wrong with science and technology. Mad scientists have been the object of movie fiction since we have had movies and nanotechnology has been a major theme for science fiction writers for decades. Hollywood has already produced films where nanotechnology plays a role (Spiderman II and Agent Cody Banks) and the video game industry recently released NanoBreaker for the PlayStation 2, a game where the player must deal with nanotechnology which has gone out of control. The cumulative impact of the messages conveyed in the movies and other media is not necessarily positive, yet it can reach millions of people in a few weeks. One message embedded in many of the plots of these movies and video games is that technology can “bite back,” often after we have integrated it into our lives. While scientists tend to dismiss these media representations as nonsense, the plots are memorable and
may seem more realistic to people who are generally uninformed about the technologies and underlying science. In the end, it is the story, or narrative, that sticks, not the intricacies of the science.
“Old Europe.” In general, European environmental NGOs and activists are more aggressive, radicalized, and media savvy, and have, to date, promoted a more cautious approach to new technologies than their American counterparts, said Rejeski. Much of the negative feedback against GMOs came from Europe, and the movement against nanotech in Europe may also evolve in a similar way. Rejeski stated that the European Union has developed and refined the precautionary principle over a number of years. This model rests on the premise that society needs to “learn and act,” in contrast to the United States approach to new technologies, which is more to “act and then learn.” Many European countries, as well as the European Union and Commission, also have rigorous technology assessment systems in place. In contrast, the U.S. Congress eliminated the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in 1995, which could have played an important role in evaluating genomics, nanotechnology, and other new science. According to Rejeski, it is important to have an office like OTA that can operate at the interface of science and public policy. This interface is traditionally under-developed and understaffed by government, but crucial to the development of new technologies in ways that are socially and environmentally responsible. In concluding, Rejeski suggested that policy makers need to start thinking about voluntary agreements with industry on the responsible use of nanotechnology and push the development of more models that bring together universities, NGOs, and industry to develop principles and best practices. It is very important to start this process today not two years from now, said Rejeski.