Risk Assessment in Nanotechnology Is a Risky Business

Inviting industry to lead the science while some regulators take their marching orders from NGOs may not work out in the long run


In assessing the risks of nanomaterials to our environment, health and safety (EHS), regulators have faced what I consider the two main obstacles preventing them from sorting this out: how do you reevaluate risk assessment for the same material first in bulk and then in nanoscale form and how do you perform measurements when there is an acute lack of tools to test these materials in the environment and not just in some vacuum of a microscopy tool. 

It seems that regulators recognize these two main stumbling blocks as well as evidenced by a recent piece over at Nanowerk that analyzes a recent Nature Nanotechnology commentary piece (subscription required) authored by a number of international regulators that looks at the science policy considerations for responsible nanotechnology decisions.

As one might expect the government types urge industry to do more in sorting out not only the workplace risks of nanomaterials, but also the risks associated with the long-term life cycle of products that contain nanomaterials.

They can urge all they want, I suppose, but the companies making products are only going to determine whether the final product they sell to the public is dangerous.

If at some point in the future, computers make use of graphene or carbon nanotubes for their electronic components, manufacturers of that part of the computers will conduct the same life-cycle tests they did when using lead, barium and mercury in the computers.

Just so there is no mistake, I support every attempt to mitigate risks associated with any product that is sold to a generally uninformed consuming public. But I do wonder whether the turmoil over EHS concerns swirling around nanotechnology today—while we blithely go along with disposing “old-world” poisons into our environment—has more to do with highly sophisticated opposition groups digging their heels in earlier than with these other dangerous materials and less to do with the real risks of nanomaterials.

To give you a sense of where regulations can lead when led around by fear mongering I give you California. Nowhere in the US are the screeds of anti-industry taken more to heart than in California, and we already have a good indication of where those knee-jerk reactions are leading, such as California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) determination that “all nanomaterials will be considered hazardous.” 

With this kind of lazy regulating, let’s hope that John DiLoreto’s prediction is wrong that lacking national regulations statewide regulations will become the de facto law of the land.

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About the Nanoclast blog

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