With Science and Patience, Lawsuits against Nanotechnology Are Avoidable

Just before the holiday week, I read the discouraging news that a consumer group had filed a lawsuit against the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regarding risks from the use of nanomaterials in products.

It seems that NGOs like the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA), inspired by their half-informed self-righteousness, somehow believe that lawsuits against the US government (the defense costs taxpayers will have to pay) is somehow helpful in either protecting consumers or determining the toxicity of nanomaterials that make up part of the material matrix of highly regulated products.

I mean the argument appears ridiculous on its surface. Basically, the ICTA believes that the FDA has been “unlawfully” delaying its decision on the safety of products that contain nanomaterials after the ICTA and other NGOs filed a petition in 2006.

How to explain the time it takes to get this sorted? Let’s see, with the elements contained in the periodic table we know the toxicity of the materials contained within it and the toxicity of the compounds when you mix these elements together. But what is being asked at this point is to reinvent the periodic table so that elements that have long-been considered benign need to be considered potentially toxic in their nanoscale form. Does any fair-minded person believe this constitutes heel dragging or an unlawful delay?

I must say I really enjoy how the NGOs always refer to a growing body of evidence about the toxicity of nanomaterials in products. They are masters this kind of rhetorical flourish, except when the tables are turned.

Despite my cynical appreciation of their manipulation of the media, I challenge them to show me one conclusive study that shows a product containing nanomaterials in a matrix has harmed anybody. You know, a tennis racquet or bicycle frame containing carbon nanotubes that causes sickness, or, dare I say, their favorite target: sunscreens that make people sick.

Just to anticipate their response, this is not the same as a nanomaterial in its free-floating form in which some nanomaterials have reportedly caused harm to workers. While this particular study I linked to here should be a cause of concern and a spur to further research, it has been revealed to have serious flaws in its science, and, most importantly, does not refer to nanomaterials that have been fixed into a larger material matrix.

My concern here is that all this bluster and self-satisfied finger pointing doesn’t manage to get us one step closer to determining whether nanomaterials when fixed into a material matrix are any more likely to be toxic to consumers than the bromine and PVC in your computer.

I want to know. And I would prefer that our tax dollars be spent on conducting that research to find out rather than being used to defend one of our government agencies from a lawsuit that doesn’t appear to have legs, but has kept the press occupied.



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