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Nanoparticle Safety

A Foresight Nanotech Institute Policy Issues Brief

by Jacob Heller and Christine Peterson

Although the field of nanotechnology is relatively new, concerns are already arising that nanomaterial may prove toxic to humans or the environment. An emerging body of studies reveals that we are simply uncertain on what effects, if any, nanoparticles will have on the environment, health, and safety (EHS). More must be done to clear up this uncertainty, so that whatever impacts nanotechnology may have can be appropriately dealt with in a proactive matter, before serious problems arise. However, it would not be prudent to completely halt nanotech development on EHS grounds, since nanotechnologies may prove extremely beneficial to both the environment and human health in the long term.

Some studies on the EHS effects of nanotechnology appear to indicate that nanoparticles have the potential to be unsafe. One early study, in which the introduction of buckyballs into water with largemouth bass significantly increased cellular damage to brain tissue, has since been cast into doubt.1 In other studies, nanotubes were found to cause significant damage to the lungs when inhaled.2 Other theoretical concerns have been raised, since some nanoparticles have the unique ability to easily pass through cell walls and can permeate the blood-brain barrier. Some nanoparticles may also be bactericidal, which means that they could be highly damaging if introduced into ecosystems where bacteria are at the bottom of the food chain.

However, these studies are preliminary and concerns are mostly speculation. Other research has found that most nanoparticles do not pose a serious threat to human and environmental safety, and many industry leaders and researchers believe that in theory nanoparticles should be benign.3 Currently, we are simply uncertain as to what EHS problems nanotechnology may pose.4

Nanotechnology may also offer many benefits for human health and the environment. The very properties of nanoparticles that make them potentially dangerous, such as their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier or destroy specific cells, make them excellent candidates for advanced medication and new drug delivery methods, and could hold the cure for diseases like cancer and AIDS.5 Nanotechnologies that are in development today can also help monitor pollution, lower energy requirements, and reduce the use of harmful cleansing chemicals. Adopting a strict "precautionary principle", and halting all research in nanotechnology, would rob humanity of nanotech’s many benefits indefinitely.

It would be beneficial to discover and appropriately deal with any EHS issues that nanotechnologies may present as they arise, while still allowing for nanotech innovation to progress. Not only would this approach help avoid human suffering and damage to the environment that may result for certain nanoparticles, but it would ensure that costly legal battles and a widespread backlash against nanotechnologies is avoided. A better understanding of the EHS impact of nanotechnologies would also clarify the regulatory landscape, which would help foster a favorable nanotech business climate — nanotech businesses are already withholding investments because they are afraid the "ground will shift underneath them".6

To further our understanding of what risks nanotechnology may present, Foresight recommends that governments allocate substantially more funding towards studying the EHS implications of nanotechnology. In FY 2006, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) allocated around $38.5 million — less than 4% of its budget — to studying the EHS implications of nanotechnology. A substantial increase, to at least $100 million, will probably be necessary to more fully research the EHS implications of nanotechnology.7 Given past histories with substances such as DDT, asbestos, and lead paint, higher spending on studying EHS risks is warranted since it can avoid trillions of dollars in legal battles and cleanup costs. Most important, it would allow policymakers and government agencies to make proactive policies that manage and prevent possible harms to EHS.

1Holmes, Bob. "Carbon 'footballs' harm fish". New Scientist Vol. 182 No. 11, April 3, 2004

2Raloff, Janet. "Nano Hazards: Exposure to minute particles harms lungs, circulatory system". Science News Online Vol. 167, No. 12, March 19, 2005. http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20050319/fob1.asp

3Small Times Magazine. "Nanotechnology: Are Safety Concerns Real Or Imagined? Experts Disagree". May 3, 2006. http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=11460

4Balbus, John et al. "Getting Nanotech Right the First Time". Issues in Science and Technology Vol. 21 No. 4, Summer 2005.

5de Grey, Aubrey. "Increasing Health and Longevity of Human Life". The Foresight Institute. http://foresight.org/challenges/health002.html

6Nordan, Matthew. "Hearing on: Nanotechnology: Where Does the U.S. Stand?’". The Research Subcommittee of the Committee on Science of the United States House of Representatives. June 29, 2005. P. 62

7Bablus et al., supra note 4

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