On October 27, 2006, the ABA Section on Environment, Energy and Resources sponsored a teleconference on the science of nanotechnology.  The speakers were Kristen Kulinowski, Ph.D., from Rice University, and John Balbus, M.D., from Environmental Defense, and the moderator was Sunil Garg, Ph.D., Esq., from the Ecoshelf Group.

Kulinowski described nanotechnology as understanding and controlling of matter between the molecular and particulate levels, where the properties of materials change and new properties emerge. For example, gold at nanoscale is red or blue and has a much higher chemical reactivity.  Major changes can be made to a material’s magnetism, friction and electrical conductivity. There are already 200-300 products on the market today that are touted as nanomaterials, and success is predicted for nanomaterials with regard to solar panels, replacing copper wires, defense applications, medicine and environmental technology. However, nanomaterials cause come concern. Some materials appear to be fairly cytotoxic, and larger cell organisms show the effects of nanomaterials in hazard studies (inject in lab).

 Exposure studies lag being hazard studies. Evaluating nanomaterials is difficult because they are extremely diverse; a limitless capacity to create such materials leads to no overarching framework of potential hazards. So far analytical tools are poorly developed for understanding risk so beware of over generalizing nanomaterial behavior, either good or bad. Current barriers to understanding risk include (1) lack of strategic research, (2) lack of standards, (3) uncertain regulatory environment, (4) transparency and responsiveness of public concerns, and (5) lack of sufficient funding. However, the International Council on Nanotechnology is developing a database of technical material and is releasing a survey of how firms handle nanomaterials on Nov. 13 (will be available on their website). Predictions for 2007: increased pressure on regulatory agencies to understand how nanotechnology fits into existing statutes and regs, increased call for labeling of consumer products, development of the research framework for evaluating risk, new standards for workplace handling, and better evaluation of potential risks.

Balbus agreed with much of what Kulinowski’s comments. Nanomaterials hold great promise as solutions to energy and health issues so the challenge is to achieve the benefits without repeating past mistakes re risk. For the discussion of potential risks, analogize to combustion particles, fine and ultra fine, because we know about their serious health effects. Particles can get through physiological barriers so enter the blood system and be taken up into cells by different mechanisms. They also can pick up unwanted other toxic materials and so deliver secondary particles. We are at early stages in understanding risk; the approach so far has been to analogize to larger particles, hypothesize using computer models, and conduct actual studies. Some studies have been reassuring but others had surprising results such as the evidence of direct stimulatory effect on cells and increased water solubility. We also have gaps in our understanding of bioaccumulation: do these materials accumulate in the body or are they secreted? Are they mobile in the environment or do they breakdown? How interact with critical cells and molecules? What are their structural activity relationships (i.e. how surface characteristics relate to toxicity? What about chronic toxicity? Difficult to make strong conclusions about toxicity of nanoparticles at this time. Reasons for a gaps in understanding: (1) infinite variation, (2) expensive to get enough material for long-term studies, (3) need instruments to detect and measure, and (4) materials tend to clump together so hard to recreate actual exposure situations. Need to develop a risk management framework. Existing regulatory coverage uncertain so companies are doing more to avoid liability than to meet existing regs; a document will be released in 2007 on Dupont’s attempts to manage risk. Need more investment to research risk, need transparency in research, and need proactive stance by regulatory agencies.

Points made during question and answer. Concerns over lack of standards or guidelines for labeling consumer products. Concerns over the harmonization of international efforts over terminology and nomenclature, and standards for handling. Not sure how the REACH regime in Europe will apply to nanotechnology. Two efforts at voluntary standards: ASTM document out soon (protocol for minimizing exposure) and ISO document out later. Top research priorities: instrumentation and monitoring equipment, bioaccumulation and transport, and exposure to consumers and the environment.