A Prospective Look at Risk Communication in the Nanotechnology Field

By Schuler, Emmanuelle | Health Law Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

A Prospective Look at Risk Communication in the Nanotechnology Field


Schuler, Emmanuelle, Health Law Review


     Public scepticism and resistance can significantly hamper the
     development of new technologies. As nanotechnology unfolds
     worldwide into commercially available products, discussions on how
     to assess and manage the potential risks are gathering momentum.

I. The Current State of the Evaluation of Nanotechnology

Initial scientific data on the impact of nanomaterials on health have recently been released. Though initial results are preliminary and inconclusive, a joint study by the NASA Johnson Space Center and the University of Texas Medical School suggested that single-walled carbon nanotubes directly injected onto the lung of mice at a dose of 0.5 mg led to the formation of microscopic nodules in lungs after a week. (1) These nodules--which can potentially cause more serious lesions--persisted and became more pronounced after three months. Another toxicology research team at DuPont independently conducted similar studies with the difference that carbon nanotubes were placed in the rats' trachea. (2) Results showed that with high doses of carbon nanotubes, fifteen percent died. The cause of death was attributed to suffocation. Nodules were also found in surviving rats but were not persistent beyond a month after instillations. This study suggested that nodules resulted from a reaction to presence of foreign substances--the carbon nanotubes--rather than from a toxic reaction.

These initial studies have received a lot of attention from scientists, industry, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), specialised media and the mass media. Since then, the topic of toxicology of nanomaterials is on the radar screen of the mass media, both in Europe and USA. (3) The Canadian-based ETC Group (Erosion, Technology and Concentration, formerly RAFI group), who in the past was active and successful in campaigning against biotechnology, was early to pick up on the potential negative aspects of nanotech. Last year, the ETC asked for a moratorium on the commercial production of nanotechnology (4); this largely contributed to bring the public debate to the international level. Greenpeace has taken a more balanced approach, acknowledging both the potential benefits and risks of nanotechnology, but asking that the debate around nanotechnology be inclusive and transparent, by including public consultation and participation in decision-making processes. (5)

These ongoing discussions may have already contributed to framing initial attitudes among the interested public--technophiles and supporters--as well as among technophobes or rejecters. But the vast majority of the public probably has little knowledge of, or interest in, nanotechnology and its potential hazards.

II. In the Near Future

More data on the impact of nanomaterials on human health and the environment is expected to be made public soon. The European Commission recently initiated a programme called Nanosafe. This programme will examine the risks involved in the production, handling and use of nanoparticles in industrial processes and consumer products and will recommend regulatory measures and codes of practices for the workplace. In July 2003, the US Environmental Protection Agency launched a call for proposals, with a budget of $4 million, to academic and not-for-profit organizations on the impact of manufactured nanomaterials on human health and the environment with a focus on toxicity, environmental and biological transport, exposure and bioavailability. In addition, a growing number of others institutions, NGOs, industries and researchers worldwide are getting involved in the technical assessment of nanomaterials. (6)

The outcomes of the current toxicology studies are likely to affect the trajectory of industrial applications of nanotechnology, favouring one type of application over another, for example. The stakes are high for both the public and private sectors. The global public investment in nanotechnology research and development is now close to $3 billion, more or less equally distributed between Europe, the USA and Japan. …

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