October 18, 2006 12:30 PM PDT
Confront nanotech health risks now, experts say
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Alderson said next year there will be about $44 million in direct funds dedicated to researching environmental and health safety issues related to nanotechnology.
"Our first priority is to identify five areas for research," he said, declining to identify when specific recommendations will be published.
Because nanomaterial can be used in such a broad range of applications, the potential hazards from these particles need to be assessed on a product-by-product basis, said Mansour.
In the absence of hard and fast guidelines from U.S. regulators--or those in other countries--Lux Research's Holman said that businesses would do well to share information voluntarily and adopt "best practices," such as proper worker safety rules and equipment that guards against inadvertent release of nanoparticles.
"Under-regulation is a bigger threat than overregulation," Holman said. He argued that the pesticide DDT was banned in some countries because a lack of regulation led to overuse. Proper oversight might have allowed it to be used safely in certain situations, he said.
At the same time, Holman noted that there is increasing opposition to nanomaterials from activists. For example, protesters sought to disrupt a nanotechnology conference in France last year. He called this a "perceptual risk" separate from any real safety problems caused by nanoparticles.
Rather than try to hide information on nanomaterials under development, he said companies should be forthcoming.
For example, Holman noted that beauty care company Estee Lauder removed all mentions of the word "nano" from its Web site. By contrast, chemical giant BASF publishes information on its own nanoparticle toxicity testing. It also plays up the benefits of nanotechnology, such as energy efficiency or reducing the use of other toxic materials.
"People feel more threatened if they feel that industry is hiding information. And people are going to feel more threatened if they feel they are not being listened to," he said.
In part because government regulators have not gotten their arms around the health and environmental implications of nanomaterials, chemical giant DuPont has undertaken a program meant to establish industry standards for safe practice, said Terry Medley, global director of corporate regulatory affairs at DuPont's Environment and Sustainable Growth Center.
DuPont is working with nonprofit group Environmental Defense to create a "framework" that considers the potential ill effects of new materials throughout their lifecycle, from development to use and eventual disposal, said Medley.
"We are developing a systematic way of assessing the responsible development of nanomaterial to see the benefits while minimizing the risk," he said.
Richard Denison, a senior scientist from Environmental Defense, said that regulators are not keeping up with the pace of change in nanotechnology, which means that government-sanctioned safety standards could take three to five years. Businesses that proactively adopt safety measures and testing will be able to influence regulation, he said.
Denison also urged industry to take on larger societal problems with nanotechnology, such as generating clean energy or water purification, rather than focus on things like a better baseball bat.
"If the risks are not addressed, we won't reap the benefits," said Rick Dennis. "What industry can do is be proactive and create a system to identify and manage risks that goes way beyond what government can do."
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