Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a fair number of groups, workshops and websites that have catalogued just how extensive our knowledge is of the possible toxicity of nanoparticles and offer best-practices for reducing their risk.
In nearly every instance, the conclusion drawn from these groups, workshops and websites is that more research is needed into various areas of nanoparticles’ environmental and health impact, such as lifecycle, exposure, etc. Fair enough. However, I think perhaps the idea that we may never have a complete body of knowledge about this is worth taking into consideration when we calculate the risk.
Nonetheless, everyone is pretty much in agreement that toxicological studies need to be conducted and even the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has acknowledged this and increased their funding to this research by 300% from just a few years ago.
But instead of this type of research we get year-long projects like the one funded by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, Institute for Health and Consumer Protection entitled Engineered Nanoparticles - Review of Health & Environmental Safety (ENRHES) that again catalogues all the research and knowledge to date on the health and environmental impact of engineered nanoparticles, offers some risk assessments and what to do next.
I am sure this 400-page report fulfills its stated goal admirably as some of the top experts in the field are among its listed researchers, but why was this made their goal? When are we going to move beyond the recognition of what we know and don’t know and start filling in the knowledge gaps with some research?
Granted, it is absolutely crucial to know where your starting point is, and though the scientists in the field may understand this intimately, the public policy wonks holding the purse strings probably don’t. But the work has already been done. A year-long funded project of reviewing the reviews is the way to move forward? Somebody might have politely given them a couple of URLs to reference and said, "Let's move on."
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.