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Posted: Jan 20, 2010

Redefining risk research priorities for nanomaterials

(Nanowerk Spotlight) In a nanotechnology risk assessment study published last year, researchers concluded that the costs associated with nanomaterial risk assessment in the United States alone could range anywhere from $249 million to $1.18 billion and might take decades to complete at current levels of investment in nano-hazard testing. While research in quantitative risk characterization of nanomaterials is crucially important, and no one advocates abandoning this approach, scientists and policy makers must face the reality that many of these knowledge gaps cannot be expected to be closed for many years to come – and decision making will need to continue under conditions of uncertainty. At the same time, current chemical-based research efforts are mainly directed at establishing toxicological and ecotoxicological and exposure data for nanomaterials, with comparatively little research undertaken on the tools or approaches that may facilitate near-term decisions.
A group of scientists suggests that this situation requires a significant research program in a fundamental area of timely, yet informed decision making regarding the potential risks of nanomaterials. In a perspectives article in Journal of Nanoparticle Research ("Redefining risk research priorities for nanomaterials") they highlight some of these issues as well as outline some of the currently available tools and approaches for decision making regarding the potential risks of nanomaterials.
"We are proposing some areas for further research efforts to redress this imbalance, such as the development of more adaptive risk governance frameworks, alternative/complementary tools to risk assessment, and health and environment surveillance," Khara Deanna Grieger, a PhD student in DTU's Department of Environmental Engineering, tells Nanowerk. "Ultimately, we hope to highlight some of the available tools and frameworks for decision making which are alternative or complementary to traditional risk assessment procedures for nanomaterials, as well as suggest some critical research areas in this field."
In their article, Grieger, Anders Baun, who heads DTU's Department of Environmental Engineering, and Richard Owens from the Policy Studies Institute in the UK, argue that there has not yet been a significant amount of attention dedicated to the field of timely and informed decision making for near term decisions. "We see this as the central issue for the responsible emergence of nanotechnologies" says Grieger.
After reviewing the available data for risk assessment of nanomaterials, the authors conclude that a consensus is beginning to emerge: "Risk assessment frameworks for chemicals should be appropriate for nanomaterials, but they most likely need some methodological modifications. Exactly what modifications are needed is not consistently made clear, and how long it will take to make these modifications is also not often stated."
The analysis by Grieger and her collaborators shows that despite the recognized serious challenges that nanomaterials present for fulfilling traditional chemical-based risk assessment frameworks and the time this will likely take, the large majority of decision support research is directed to fit ultimately within this framework.
Grieger points out that, given this situation, decision makers may not be well equipped to make decisions concerning nanomaterials under conditions of extensive uncertainty in relation to environmental and human health protection in the near term.
"It is clear, in our view, that there is a need for a program of research and knowledge transfer specifically aimed at supporting near- and medium-term decision making, in real time and at the same pace as nano-innovation itself" she says. "Furthermore, since there are already a number of nanomaterials on the market with varying degrees of potential for exposure, we also recommend the use of environment and health surveillance as an early warning system to act as a safety net around such a decision support program, to which it may also serve to inform."
The three authors believe it is likely that the field of assessing the health and environmental risks of nanomaterials will transform from an emerging topic with many known-unknowns to a more ‘normal’ field of toxicology, ecotoxicology, exposure, etc. for a wide range of nanomaterials. At the same time, they note, it seems in some ways that scientists, regulators, and other decision makers are trying to learn from past mistakes and be more proactive about addressing these potential risks, and to ensure that the ‘right’ questions are asked.
"Some fundamental issues may not be easy to solve and may require significant time and resources, including questions embedded in emerging risks like “how do we better anticipate surprises?” and “how much information is needed to make a decision?” says Grieger. "These issues are also compounded by, for instance, the variety of emerging nanomaterials and international contexts, in which different societies may choose to handle emerging risks differently."
The central recommendation by Grieger, Baun and Owens is the establishment of an international research program that specifically addresses critical issues of risk governance and timely decision making as these relate to nanomaterials specifically, and emerging technologies more generally. They also recommend the development of environmental and health surveillance is needed to act as a safety net and an early warning system while these issues are being addressed.
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