The new technologies discussed throughout the workshop have a tremendous potential across a number of areas in the economy and promise to improve our lives in different ways. Due to advancements in nanotechnology, its application in areas such as pollution reduction, new methods of energy production, and medical innovation is likely to have a positive effect on our lives in the near future. However, because the technologies are so new, they may have a hazardous impact on our health as well.
During the workshop, the Roundtable heard from the speakers and participants that this technology is very complicated and that there are potentially thousands of new substances that can be developed which, like chemicals, can have numerous different attributes. While we can quantify the potential for economic benefit and other benefits to society, presently science does not have the information necessary to quantify the potential for hazards or to develop a method for assessing those hazards. The research is hampered by a lack of nomenclature, which is necessary in order to discuss these substances, a lack of risk–benefit analysis, and a lack of both a research framework and strong leadership.
Today, there is no precise nomenclature developed for the field of nanotechnology which causes confusion to the public, policy makers, and researchers as it cannot receive clear messages about the benefits and risks of the new technology. The issue of nomenclature is critical for the field of nanotechnology and it must be addressed by all groups involved, including scientists, regulators, media, industry, and others.
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
materials we need to understand how they interact with the environment once they are released.
NEED FOR FRAMEWORK AND LEADERSHIP
A number of times during the workshop, the need for a risk assessment framework was discussed. The discussion highlighted the need for bold leadership in this area, such as the effort made by the federal government when it established the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
Nanotechnology needs to have a regulatory framework similar to the one that was developed in the early days of biotechnology in the United States—where regulatory agencies got together to determine how existing laws and authorities could be used to fill the regulatory gaps for these new technologies. There is a need for the federal government to establish such a framework. Since biotechnology went on the market, many organizations have assessed hazards after the fact. With nanotechnology, the process of external scientific advice could occur earlier and provide an opportunity to steer the process more wisely before the fact. Other creative approaches, such as stakeholder dialogues convened by mutual parties, can also be helpful.
Additionally, the government needs a process to steer research and development, taking into account uses, life cycle issues (manufacture through disposal), and environmental fate and transport of these materials. One model for research coordination is the Global Climate Research Initiative. In the 1980s, a budget was established for competitive use by agencies if they were willing to come to the table with projects that would meet the goals of a comprehensively assessing climate change. It makes a difference to have that kind of leadership coming from the top.
It is important for government to make the right decisions so there is honest and straightforward communication. Bad decisions lead to bad risk communication. No matter how hard one tries, there is nothing that substitutes for making the right decisions and preventing the adverse events.
There is a need for international leadership as well. Any adverse event happening with nanotechnology anywhere in the world is going to reflect negatively on it everywhere in the world. Thus, early engagement of the global community and having leadership on all issues, including establishing a common language for identifying these substances is critical.