Health and safety in nanotechnology

The Wilson Center’s Andrew Maynard on the way forward

With billions invested annually in research and development, and an industry in rapid expansion, relatively little attention has been paid so far to the impact of nanomaterials on the environment and health. With this in mind, an international team of experts led by Andrew Maynard*, Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, recently published in the journal Nature a paper outlining a number of challenges for the science and policy communities.

How is nanotechnology managed and regulated around the world today?

“The short answer is that it isn’t. As an interim measure, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the UK has implemented a voluntary reporting programme for engineered nanomaterials, and the Environmental protection Agency (EPA) in the US is developing a similar programme. The EPA and other agencies are also considering how existing regulations apply to nanotechnology, but are some way from making any decisions.”

A number of senior politicians have responded in general terms to your call, but is there any sign yet that words will be translated into specific action?

“I’m optimistic—perhaps more than with any other major technological advance, people are concerned about understanding and managing potential nano-risks at an early stage. Yet there is tremendous inertia resisting changes in how research is prioritised, funded and managed. There is evidence that governments are developing strategic risk-research plans, but these need to be implemented as soon as possible if critical questions on developing safe nanotechnologies are to be answered.”

You write of a need for environmental monitoring systems to be implemented within a few years. How feasible is this?

“This is a tough challenge, but not impossible. We currently have the technology to measure the mass, surface and number of airborne particles, but need to find ways of combining and miniaturising these technologies to create a “universal aerosol monitor”. If we can persuade manufacturers to develop an instrument that measures airborne nanomaterials in multiple ways, there is less chance of it becoming obsolete quickly, and more chance of it being commercially successful.”

How should health and safety research be funded and managed?

“Both government and industry should bear the responsibility of ensuring technologies they are promoting and implementing are as safe as possible—this will require more funding dedicated to environmental, safety and health research, but it will also depend on a coordinated plan of action. In the US, agencies such as EPA are developing their own research strategies and portfolios, but these will have to be integrated into the larger picture to be fully successful.”

Where does the precautionary principle come into it?

“The precautionary principle has many interpretations, but asking intelligent questions about possible risks, and addressing potential harm to health or the environment at an early stage in research, development and production, will reduce and hopefully avoid having to respond to real consequences after the fact.”

Are there lessons to be learned from the experience of GM foods about public attitudes toward nanotechnology?

“Science is a social activity, and the end-users of technology are becoming increasingly influential in determining the course of emerging technologies. Successful nanotechnologies will ultimately depend on transparency, dialogue and education—that’s educating scientists on how society works, as much as empowering the users of science to make sound decisions on what it means to them.”

* Andrew Maynard is Science Advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. A physicist originally from the UK, Maynard is an internationally recognised expert in aerosol characterisation, and author of more than 70 scientific publications. He is an Associate Professor at the University of Cincinnati, and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen.

Article first published in Nanomaterials News.