Getting Nanotechnology Right the First Time: Government and Industry Should Be Working to Identify and Manage Possible Health and Environmental Risks before New Products Are Widely Used

Article excerpt

Nanotechnology--the design and manipulation of materials at the molecular and atomic scale--has great potential to deliver environmental as well as other benefits. The novel properties that emerge as materials reach the nanoscale (changes in surface chemistry, reactivity, electrical conductivity, and other properties) open the door to innovations in cleaner energy production, energy efficiency, water treatment, environmental remediation, and "lightweighting" of materials, among other applications, that provide direct environmental improvements.

At the same time, these novel properties may pose new risks to workers, consumers, the public, and the environment. The few data now available give cause for concern: Some nanomaterials appear to have the potential to damage skin, brain, and lung tissue, to be mobile or persistent in the environment, or to kill microorganisms (potentially including ones that constitute the base of the food web). This trickle of data only highlights how little is known about the environmental and health effects of engineered nanomaterials. (A bibliography of references and abstracts of risk-related research studies on nanomaterials is available at www.environmentaldefense.org/go/nano.)

As illustrated by the problems caused by asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons, DDT, leaded gasoline, PCBs, and numerous other substances, the fact that a product is useful does not ensure that it is benign to health or the environment. And if the danger becomes known after the product is widely used, the consequences can go beyond human suffering and environmental harm to include lengthy regulatory battles, costly cleanup efforts, expensive litigation quagmires, and painful public-relations debacles. So far, rapid development and commercial introduction of nanomaterials in varied applications are outpacing efforts to understand their implications, let alone ensure their safety. Fortunately, nanotechnology development and commercialization are still at an early stage, so it is not too late to begin managing this process wisely.

Nanotechnology offers an important opportunity to apply the lessons from prior mistakes by identifying risks up front, taking the necessary steps to address them, and meaningfully engaging stakeholders to help shape this technology's trajectory. There is an opportunity to get nanotechnology right the first time.

Reason for concern

Nanoparticles can be naturally occurring or generated as byproducts of chemical reactions such as combustion. But attention now is focusing on the large number of engineered nanomaterials--fullerenes (also known as buckyballs), carbon nanotubes, quantum dots, and nanoscale metal oxides, among others--that are beginning to reach the market in growing quantities and in a wide variety of applications.

Studies performed to date are inadequate to provide a full picture of the risks of these engineered nanomaterials and leave open even more questions about other variants and types of engineered nanomaterials. Even so, they offer reason for concern. Studies have demonstrated that some nanomaterials can be mobile or persist in the environment and can be toxic to animals as diverse as fish and rats. A recent Rice University study of buckyballs found that although individual buckyballs do not dissolve well in water, they have a tendency to form aggregates that are both very water-soluble and bacteriocidal, a property that raises strong concerns about ecosystem impacts, because bacteria constitute the bottom of the food chain in many ecosystems. In addition, nanoparticles are deposited throughout the respiratory tract when inhaled. Some of the particles settle in the nasal passages, where they have been shown to be taken up by the olfactory nerves and carried past the blood-brain barrier directly into brain cells. Nanoparticles in the 30- to 50-nanometer range have been shown to penetrate deeply into the lungs, where they readily cross through lung tissue and enter the systemic circulation. …