Moving Past Determinations about Nanotech Safety to How Do We Begin to Regulate It?

A recent blog entry of mine on the decision of the EPA to investigate the toxicity of nanoparticles generated a relatively large amount of comments. And I think I have an idea why it did.

If the trend over the last few years has been the investigation and discussion of nanomaterials’ risk, then the next few years will likely see governments of the world attempting to mitigate those risks, whatever they may be, through regulation.

After reading this account  from the Institute of Ethics & Emerging Technologies (IEET) of a recent meeting of a 150 experts that posed the question: “Is nanotechnology regulatable?", it got me thinking.

Let me start by saying the headline for this blog is deliberately misleading because when people talk about concerns over the use of nanotechnology, they usually talk about safety: "How safe is nanotechnology?" This really isn’t the right question.

You see, nothing is safe including the steps leading to your home, your bathtub or the teddy bear your child plays with. The better way to understand the concerns about nanotechnology is the idea of Risk.

The formula for understanding how you establish the level of Risk is the following: Hazard x Exposure = Risk. This is key to understanding how the level of risk (or safety) for any product can be determined, but what does it mean exactly?

Well, for example, if you took a substance that you knew to be hazardous, like hydrochloric acid, and put it in open jar and then placed that jar in a public place where anyone could touch it or tip it over, the risk would be extremely high. But if you took that same hazard (the hydrochloric acid) and put it in a sealed container with signs on it that warned of its hazard, and put that container in a lab where only people with the proper training in how to handle it could access it, then the risk would be much lower.

So, in this example you can see how the same hazard but with different levels of exposure change the risk level of the material. This is true for nanomaterials as well. If a nanomaterial has been determined to be hazardous, but you somehow reduce the potential exposure to it then the risk of that hazard is reduced as well.

There are different ways of determining this level of exposure for nanomaterials. One that was made in the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2004 report “Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties” that one’s exposure to free-floating engineered nanoparticles is likely more of a risk than when those same particles are integrated into any final product.

So, we are now reaching a point where governments will need to start looking at regulation and determining where the risks are the greatest and how controls over the handling and use of nanoparticles can best reduce that risk. Even if one were to take the draconian suggestion of Jo Anne Shatkin from the IEET article above, in which any nanomaterial that we cannot determine the toxicity of should be considered hazardous, it does not necessarily need to derail the use of nanomaterials. Just exercise the necessary precautions (i.e. regulations) and the material can be used.

Granted more research needs to be done to get a better handle on the life cycle of products that contain nanomaterials in a matrix, but we need to understand that all sorts of highly dangerous materials are used in products that we use everyday, but they do not pose a threat to our health. 


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IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY