Confront nanotech health risks now, experts say

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

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read
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 published a study 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.

Alderson said next year there will be about $44 million in direct funds dedicated to researching environmental and health safety issues related to nanotechnology.

"Our first priority is to identify five areas for research," he said, declining to identify when specific recommendations will be published.

Because nanomaterial can be used in such a broad range of applications, the potential hazards from these particles need to be assessed on a product-by-product basis, said Mansour.

Self regulation?
In the absence of hard and fast guidelines from U.S. regulators--or those in other countries--Lux Research's Holman said that businesses would do well to share information voluntarily and adopt "best practices," such as proper worker safety rules and equipment that guards against inadvertent release of nanoparticles.

"Under-regulation is a bigger threat than overregulation," Holman said. He argued that the pesticide DDT was banned in some countries because a lack of regulation led to overuse. Proper oversight might have allowed it to be used safely in certain situations, he said.

At the same time, Holman noted that there is increasing opposition to nanomaterials from activists. For example, protesters sought to disrupt a nanotechnology conference in France last year. He called this a "perceptual risk" separate from any real safety problems caused by nanoparticles.

Rather than try to hide information on nanomaterials under development, he said companies should be forthcoming.

For example, Holman noted that beauty care company Estee Lauder removed all mentions of the word "nano" from its Web site. By contrast, chemical giant BASF publishes information on its own nanoparticle toxicity testing. It also plays up the benefits of nanotechnology, such as energy efficiency or reducing the use of other toxic materials.

"People feel more threatened if they feel that industry is hiding information. And people are going to feel more threatened if they feel they are not being listened to," he said.

In part because government regulators have not gotten their arms around the health and environmental implications of nanomaterials, chemical giant DuPont has undertaken a program meant to establish industry standards for safe practice, said Terry Medley, global director of corporate regulatory affairs at DuPont's Environment and Sustainable Growth Center.

DuPont is working with nonprofit group Environmental Defense to create a "framework" that considers the potential ill effects of new materials throughout their lifecycle, from development to use and eventual disposal, said Medley.

"We are developing a systematic way of assessing the responsible development of nanomaterial to see the benefits while minimizing the risk," he said.

Richard Denison, a senior scientist from Environmental Defense, said that regulators are not keeping up with the pace of change in nanotechnology, which means that government-sanctioned safety standards could take three to five years. Businesses that proactively adopt safety measures and testing will be able to influence regulation, he said.

Denison also urged industry to take on larger societal problems with nanotechnology, such as generating clean energy or water purification, rather than focus on things like a better baseball bat.

"If the risks are not addressed, we won't reap the benefits," said Rick Dennis. "What industry can do is be proactive and create a system to identify and manage risks that goes way beyond what government can do."