Ethical and Scientific Issues of Nanotechnology in the Workplace
Schulte, Paul A., Salamanca-Buentello, Fabio, Environmental Health Perspectives
In the absence of scientific clarity about the potential health effects of occupational exposure to nanoparticles, a need exists for guidance in decisionmaking about hazards, risks, and controls. An identification of the ethical issues involved may be useful to decision makers, particularly employers, workers, investors, and health authorities. Because the goal of occupational safety and health is the prevention of disease in workers, the situations that have ethical implications that most affect workers have been identified. These situations include the a) identification and communication of hazards and risks by scientists, authorities, and employers; b) workers' acceptance of risk; c) selection and implementation of controls; d) establishment of medical screening programs; and e) investment in toxicologic and control research. The ethical issues involve the unbiased determination of hazards and risks, nonmaleficence (doing no harm), autonomy, justice, privacy, and promoting respect for persons. As the ethical issues are identified and explored, options for decision makers can be developed. Additionally, societal deliberations about workplace risks of nanotechnologies may be enhanced by special emphasis on small businesses and adoption of a global perspective. Key words: ethics, hazards, nanotechnology, occupational safety and health, particles, toxicology. Environ Health Perspect 115: 5-12 (2007). doi: 10.1289/ehp.9456 available via http://dx.doi.org/[Online 25 September 2006]
Science and technology have identified unique properties in materials with dimensions in the range of 1-100 nm [Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 2004; National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) 2004]. These properties may yield many far-reaching societal benefits, but they may also pose hazards and risks. One area of concern about hazards is the workplace--be it a research laboratory, start-up company, production facility, or operation in which engineered nanomaterials are processed, used, disposed, or recycled. These are the workplaces in which some of the first societal exposures to engineered nanoparticles are occurring. Such exposures are likely to be inadvertent and unintended. Despite a conscious effort by governments, corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), trade associations, academics, and workers to anticipate and address potential workplace hazards [Bartis and Landree 2006; Hett 2004; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath (NIOSH) 2006; National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) 2006; Roco and Bainbridge 2003; Scientific Committee on Engineering and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) 2005], workers are still likely to be exposed to nanomaterials.
Much research on the ethical aspects of nanotechnology has focused on generalized issues such as equity, privacy, security, environmental impact, and metaphysical applications concerning human-machine interactions (Mnyusiwalla et al. 2003; Moor and Weckert 2004; Singer 2004). No ethics research has been carried out that pertains specifically to the workplace. To help anticipate the impact of nanotechnology, it is important to provide a framework for the ethical and scientific issues involved with nanotechnology in the workplace. Ethical analysis may assure society that the expansive promise of nanotechnology does not conceal hazards and risks for workers. An emerging belief is that nanoscience and technology cannot be based on past practices in which ethical and social reflection is a second step to using newly developed science; rather, ethical reflections must accompany research every step of the way (National Academy of Engineering 2004). Our goal in this paper is to identify ethical issues that are directly related to nanotechnology in the workplace and their implications for workers' health and safety.
Framework for Ethical Assessment
The framework for considering the ethical issues can be drawn from the work of Gert et al. (1997), Gewirth (1978, 1986), and Schrader-Frechette (1994) as well as from the "principlist" approach of Beauchamp and Childress (1994). The ethical issues that most affect workers in jobs involving nanomaterials are linked to identification and communication of hazards and risks by scientists, authorities, and employers; acceptance of risk by workers; implementation of controls; choice of participation in medical screening; and adequate investment in toxicologic and exposure control research (Table 1). The ethical issues involve the identification and assessment of hazards and risks, nonmaleficence (doing no harm), autonomy (self-determination), justice (fairness in distribution of risks), privacy (in handling of medical information), and respect for persons.
Factual scientific knowledge--which is the basis for ethical decisions about occupational safety and health--may be influenced by biases and values (Kantrowitz 1995). Scientific knowledge is unavoidably value laden. No scientific theory can be considered to be wholly objective, but one theory may be more objective than another (Shrader-Frechette 1994). Underlying the ethical decisions are the way in which nanotechnology is depicted, the potential benefits, and the associated hazards and risks. When information about the hazards of nanoparticles is in doubt, the critical question is where to draw the line about the necessary level of protection and the residual risk at a given level of protection.
Risk assessments are partly subjective and likely to be highly politicized. Thus all risk projections are value laden. No single scenario for describing risks and controls can suffice because of the heterogeneous and developmental nature of nanotechnology. The ethical issues will be specific only for the knowledge base at a given time and for a specified production and use scenario. Researchers have suggested that even with that type of specificity, alternative assessments are needed to capture the ethical and political values that inform policies such as those involving nanotechnology (Schrader-Frechette 2002).
Current State of Knowledge about Nanotechnology Hazards and Risks
The way in which nanotechnology is depicted may influence society's reactions to research, development, and prevention and control of potential nanomaterial hazards in the workplace (Berube 2004). The term "nanotechnology" is misleading, since it is not a single technology but a multidisciplinary grouping of physical, chemical, biological, engineering, and electronic processes, materials, applications, and concepts in which size is the defining characteristic (Aitken et al. 2004). However, the issues of size, surface characteristics, durability, chemical composition, and other physiochemical features are not well resolved in the definition. A fuller definition also includes structures with novel properties that can be manipulated on the atomic scale (NNI 2004; Salamanca-Buentello et al. 2005).
Nanoparticles can be considered in at least two broad categories: engineered nanoparticles and incidental (or adventitious) nanoparticles. Engineered nanoparticles are designed with very specific properties. Incidental nanoparticles (natural and anthropogenic) are generated in a relatively uncontrolled manner and are usually physically and chemically heterogeneous compared with engineered nanoparticles (NIOSH 2006). Although the four current major production methods of engineered nanoparticles (gas-phase synthesis, vapor deposition, and colloidal and attrition methods) may expose workers by inhalation, dermal absorption, and ingestion, the amount and likelihood of worker exposure has not been well established. The critical question (based on the little information available) pertains to the assessment of hazards and risks. The unifying theme is that nanoparticles are smaller than their bulk counterparts but have a larger surface area and particle number per unit mass; these characteristics generally increase toxic potential as a result of increased potential for reactivity (Aitken et al. 2004). The application of that theory to the whole of nanotechnology rather than to specific particles and processes may increase rather than decrease the uncertainty about hazards and risks. Increasingly, other characteristics (e.g., surface characteristics) in addition to particle size, that influence toxicity are being identified (Donaldson et al. 2006; Warheit et al. 2004). These characteristics are tremendously variable. Consequently, it is useful to put some limits on the uncertainty by being more precise in the language used to describe nanoparticle hazards and risks. Because a diverse mix of particles and processes exists, hazards and risks are likely to be more accurately assessed on a case-by-case basis--or at least according to the type of production methods and whether particles are embedded in a matrix or unbound.
Knowledge about hazards and risks. Health effects data on workers involved with nanotechnology are limited because of the incipient nature of the field, the relatively small number of workers potentially exposed to date, and the lack of time for chronic disease to develop and be detected. The most relevant human experience deals with exposures to ultrafine particles (which include particles with diameters < 100 nm) and fine particles (particles with diameters < 2.5 [micro]m). Ultrafine and fine particles have been assessed in epidemiologic air pollution studies and in studies of occupational cohorts exposed to mineral dusts, fibers, welding fumes, combustion products, and poorly soluble, low-toxicity particulates such as titanium dioxide and carbon black (Maynard and Kuempel 2005; Nel et al. 2006). The hazards of these exposures and …
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Publication information: Article title: Ethical and Scientific Issues of Nanotechnology in the Workplace. Contributors: Schulte, Paul A. - Author, Salamanca-Buentello, Fabio - Author. Journal title: Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume: 115. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2007. Page number: 5+. © 2006 National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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