Sometime in the past couple of weeks – I’m not entirely sure when as accounts are conflicting – the World Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC) posted a draft of a new report examining the long-term impacts and research directions of nanotechnology. The “Nano2″ study was supported by the National Science Foundation under the direction of Mike Roco, and included input from an impressive array of nano-experts from round the world. What resulted was a 13 chapter behemoth of a report on the current state and next ten years of nanotechnology worldwide.
Having just started to look through the report (I was traveling when it was posted … I think) I can’t really comment on it’s overall relevance and authority. But if the chapter dealing with environment, health and safety (EHS) issues is anything to go by, this is a report to take seriously…
The EHS chapter (chapter 4) is authored by twelve recognized experts in the field of nano-risks, and presents a comprehensive perspective on near-term research challenges and opportunities. The chapter is far from perfect – as you would expect, it reflects the perspectives and interests of the authors – but then most reports of this type do. It also contains some rather jangling statements. For instance on the first page the definition of “the environmental, health and safety (EHS) of nanomaterials” seems to miss out environmental impact beyond “animal health”. And a rather outmoded focus on educating the public on page 25, where the authors state
“A key issue therefore is for academia, industry and government is to find appropriate mechanisms to reach consensus, and effectively communicate and educate the public on the beneficial implications of nanotechnology, the potential for risk, and what is being done to ensure safe implementation of the technology.”
Mmm, not quite what they are teaching in engagement 101 these days!
But this is a draft, and these and other questionable statements do not detract from the overall usefulness of the chapter.
In many ways, the chapter reflects challenges that have been raised before. Many of the issues highlighted can be traced back to the 2006 commentary in Nature I co-authored on nanotechnology safety challenges, and a number of reports that preceded it. So questions surrounding exposure monitoring, toxicity screening, predictive modeling, safety by design and taking a life cycle approach to emerging nanomaterials abound. But many of these are unpacked and explored in a fresh and useful way in this document. There is also a very welcome tie-in to risk-governance [a topic near and dear to my heart, having just co-edited a forthcoming book on the subject], reflecting the need for integrative approaches to understanding and addressing the challenges presented by engineered nanomaterials.
That said, the report fails to break out of old ruts when it comes to identifying materials of concern. The old chestnuts are there – carbon nanotubes, zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, nano-silver and the like. But there’s little mention of the next wave of emerging nanomaterials – nanoscale cellulose for instance, or active nanomaterials. Neither do prevalent but poorly studied engineered nanomaterials like platinum/palladium nanoparticles in auto catalysts get a look-in. Granted that the document is only looking forward 10 years, but it would have been good to have seen more thought given to complex nanomaterials, and novel approaches to exploring whether they present emergent risks, and how to handle them.
That aside though, this chapter is a strong addition to the literature on nanomaterial risks, and how we need to start addressing them – from risk identification and assessment through to risk management, mitigation and avoidance. The areas highlighted for further research/action aren’t comprehensive, but they are important. These include:
- Developing validated nano-EHS screening methods and harmonized protocols that promote standardized engineered nanomaterials risk assessment at levels commensurate with the growth of nanotechnology.
- Developing risk reduction strategies that can be implemented incrementally through commercial nanoproduct data collection, regulatory activity, and EHS research directly linked to decision-making.
- Developing a clearly defined strategy for nano-EHS governance that is compatible with incremental knowledge generation and stepwise decision-making
- Developing computational analysis methods capable of providing in silico modeling of nano-EHS risk assessment and modeling.
- Developing high-throughput and high-content screening as a universal tool for studying nanomaterial toxicology, ranking hazards, prioritizing animal studies and nano-Quantitative Structure Activity Relationship models, and guiding the safe design of nanomaterials.
- Improving safety screening and safe design of nanomaterials used in therapeutics and diagnostics.
- Developing advanced instrumentation and analytical methods for more competent and reliable engineered nanomaterial characterization, and detection in complex biological and environmental media.
- Development of computational models, algorithms, and multidisciplinary resources for increasingly sophisticated predictive modeling.
- Developing workforce capacity through interdisciplinary education and training, particularly in the nano-EHS field, where a large number of research areas are converging.
by Andrew Maynard