The UK government has published its second research report on nanotechnology risks, outlining progress on its research agenda to address the potential risk posed by the products of nanotechnology. The report places the UK research program in an international context. The Nanotechnology Research Coordination Group (NRCG) is collaborating with international partners, particularly through the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Standards Organization (ISO), to share data and experiences. In this way they hope to be able to maximize the effectiveness and speed with which potential risks may be identified and managed. The report also responds to the recommendations made by the Council for Science and Technology (CST) review (March 2007) on the UK research program and the activities of the NRCG.
One of the more interesting concerns of nanotechnology is 'grey goo.' The term was invented by Eric Drexler to describe one of the dangerous issues that must be faced as nanotechnology capabilities evolve. Here's how it works. 1. Pretend that nanotechnology truly exists to the point where we can fabricate machines of arbitrary complexity using individual atoms or molecules. 2. Pretend that these machines have sufficient complexity and computational means that they can make copies of themselves using whatever happens to be lying within their reach. 3. Pretend that their fabrication systems are such that they can make a copy of themselves about once an hour. 4. Pretend that one of these machines decides to do nothing except make copies of itself.
As an emerging science, nanotoxicology is expanding the boundaries of traditional toxicology from a testing and auxiliary science to a new discipline where toxicological knowledge of nanomaterials can be put to constructive use in therapeutics as well as the development of new and better biocompatible materials. Until now, though, no one has been able to pin-point which properties determines or influences the inherent hazards of nanoparticles. Now, scientists have developed a framework that can be applied to a suggested hazard identification approach and is aimed at identifying causality between inherent physical and chemical properties and observed adverse effects reported in the literature.
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have shown promise as an important new class of multifunctional building blocks and innovative tools in a large variety of nanotechnology applications, ranging from nanocomposite materials through nanoelectronics to biomedical devices (e.g. gene and drug carriers). The recent rapid development in nanotechnology has renewed the pressing demand for large-scale production of CNTs for potential applications in commercial products. The number of industrial-scale facilities for the increasingly low-cost production of multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) continues to grow, and with that the professional and public exposure to MWCNTs is expected to increase significantly in the coming years. Owing to their unusual one-dimensional hollow nanostructure and unique physicochemical properties, CNTs are particularly useful as novel drug delivery tools and imaging agents. However, such biomedical, and many other related, applications will not be realized if there is no proper assessment of the potential hazards of CNTs to humans and other biological systems. This situation prompted a group of researchers to carry out the first genotoxicity study of nanomaterials. Although the health effects of nanomaterials have attracted considerable attention, the scientific community has thus far focused primarily on the studies of nanomaterials toxicity at the cellular level. Very little is known about the toxicity at the molecular level, or genotoxicity, of nanomaterials in mammalian cells. Researchers at the University of Dayton have assessed the DNA damage response to MWCNTs in mouse embryonic stem cells (ES). This new work emphasizes the importance of careful scrutiny of the genotoxicity of nanomaterials.
Governments always struggle when faced with regulating highly complex subject matters such as nanotechnologies. Primarily concerned with managing the potential risks to the environment, human health and the safety of workers (EHS), regulators often feel overwhelmed by the complexity and novelty of new technologies, stymied by a lack of data, and confused by conflicting research findings and advice from various interest groups. In the meantime, against a backdrop of a legal environment that ranges from gaping holes to regulatory vacuum, research organizations and early-adopting industry players push ahead with the new technology. Not being able to create any breathing room for lengthy political and legal considerations, the last 15-20 years have seen several governments adopting voluntary environmental programs (VEPs), arguing that this is the only viable proportional option for the time being. It is estimated that there are some 300 VEPs in the European Union and over 200 in the United States, dealing with matters such as climate change, energy, waste, water, toxic materials, agriculture, manufacturing, mining, forestry, hotels, hospitals, and financial institutions. If these voluntary programs work is subject to debate - some apparently do, some less so. In the case of manufactured nanomaterials, the risk properties remain largely unknown and it is unclear what exactly should be regulated. For the VEPs that are in place for nanomaterials, governments are urging companies to submit health and safety information on the nanomaterials they produce or commercialize. In order to investigate whether voluntary government programs will be sufficient to ensure the safety of manufactured nanomaterials, researchers have analyzed a sampling of voluntary programs in the fields of environmental health and safety in the United States over the past 20 years, with a view towards their applicability in the case of manufactured nanomaterials
The benefits of new technologies, whether they are new medical treatments, an innovative approach to farming or new ways of generating energy, almost always come with some new risks as well. In the emerging stages of a new technology, experts and the public generally differ in their perceptions of risk. While this might be due to social and demographic factors, it is generally assumed by scientists who conduct risk research that experts' risk assessments are based more strongly on actual or perceived knowledge about a technology than lay people's risk assessments. Nevertheless, whether the risks are real or not, the public perception of an emerging technology will have a major influence on the acceptance of this technology and its commercial success. If the public perception turns negative, potentially beneficial technologies will be severely constrained as is the case for instance with gene technology. It is not surprising that a new study found that, in general, nanoscientists are more optimistic than the public about the potential benefits of nanotechnology. What is surprising though, is that, for some issues related to the environmental and long-term health impacts of nanotechnology, nanoscientists seem to be significantly more concerned than the public.
Earlier this year, the Science Policy Council of the U.S. Environmental Protection EPA (EPA) issued the final version of its Nanotechnology White Paper. The purpose of this White Paper is to inform EPA management of the science issues and needs associated with nanotechnology, to support related EPA program office needs, and to communicate these nanotechnology science issues to stakeholders and the public. While this has been the publicly most visible EPA activity with regard to nanotechnology, it is less widely known that the EPA, since 2002, has been spending more than $25 million through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants program for 86 projects on research into the environmental aspects of nanotechnology. The projects are broadly grouped into two main categories: 1) nanotechnology applications - examining beneficial uses - where the areas of research include green manufacturing, contamination remediation, sensors for environmental pollutants, and waste treatment; and 2) nanotechnology implications - examining the potentially adverse health effects to humans and the environment - where research is grouped into five categories: aerosol, exposure assessment, fate and transport, life-cycle analysis, and toxicity.
The controversy over the use of nanoparticles in everyday cosmetics has been going on for a while now. At best, the evidence is inconclusive - it is too early to say whether there is a risk or not. Regulators have no specific research findings to act on. Cosmetic firms of course claim that their products are safe and comply with all the relevant laws and regulations. On the other hand, they fight tooth and nail to have to label their products containing synthetic nanoparticles. The cosmetic industry's stance is even more perplexing given the common sense approach that regulators are taking.