Confront nanotech health risks now, experts say

Industry urged to investigate and disclose nanotech health and environmental issues early in product development.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Environmental and health risks stemming from nanomaterials are real and need to be addressed head on by both industry and regulatory bodies, experts said this week at a conference.

Lux Research hosted two talks Tuesday on environmental and health safety issues related to nanotechnology here at its Lux Executive Summit, which brings together business people and investors.

Speakers did not address specific hazards that could stem from nanomaterials. Rather, they recognized that there are potential risks--some involving public perceptions--and urged business people to address them early in product development, rather than as an afterthought.

Nanotechnology is the science of working with materials at the nanoscale. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide.

Nanomaterials can be used in a broad range of products, from solar panels to golf balls to medicines. Lux Research earlier this year that found that 148 of the world's largest 1,331 companies have nanotechnology projects under way, with that number expected to double by 2008 and corporate R&D spending to balloon to $12 billion by then.

But even as these nanomaterials become used in commercial products, there is still not a great deal of understanding of the environmental and health safety risks, said Michael Holman, a Lux Research analyst who specializes in the area.

"We don't know enough," Holman said. "There is a lot of confusion that isn't going to be resolved quickly or easily."

Holman cited the example of fullerenes, a carbon-based molecule that is used in products such as eye cream. One test, meant to measure the impact of disposed fullerenes, found that the substance damaged the brains of largemouth bass.

Later, however, that result was disputed with some researchers arguing that fullerenes could even have a beneficial effect on those fish, he explained.

More data needed
Because of a lack of reliable data on safety issues, a panel of experts said that businesses should test for toxicity at every stage of product development. In addition, they urged companies developing new materials to work closely with federal regulatory bodies and academics.

"Environmental and health safety issues are not only part of the business cases for start-up companies, it's fundamental to the business," said Mark Mansour, a partner at law firm Foley & Lardner.

"I've seen companies go through an incredible amount of research and development and investment without consulting regulators. And then you have a business plan that doesn't work," he said.

Regulatory bodies in the U.S. are looking to fund further research on the health safety and environmental effects from nanomaterials. But right now there aren't any laws or standards in place and efforts to establish them could take years.

A Nanotechnology Environmental and Health Implications Working Group, which includes several government agencies, is now working on a paper outlining research priorities.

One of the first tasks of this group is to define what should be considered nanomaterial, said Norris Alderson, the chairman of that working group and the associate commissioner for science at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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