The April issue of Environmental Health Perspectives carried an interesting article by Charles W. Schmidt, "Nanotechnology Related Environment, Health, and Safety Research: Examining the National Strategy". The article looks at what could be a disturbing development, that
Experts in nanotoxicity and risk assessment have become increasingly polarized, represented on one side by the National Research Council (NRC) and on the other by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).
Schmidt’s article notes that this polarization began after the Nanotechnology Environmental And Health Implications (NEHI) Working Group, part of NNI, released Strategy for Nanotechnology Related Environmental Health and Safety Research in February 2008. The report presented the then Bush Administration’s agenda for studying nanoparticle hazards and was developed and written after "extensive consultations with regulatory agencies, research organizations, the business community and non-governmental organizations". The report reflected the concerns of the established stakeholders in nanotechnology.
In February 2009, an NRC assembled panel released its own report
. . . describing what it calls serious short comings in the strategy document. According to the NRC panel . . . the strategy exposes weaknesses in the government’s understanding of potential nanotechnology risks today and doesnot adequately address how they will be assessed in the future.
. . . NRC panelists would like to see a National Health based Strategy for nanotechnology research with defined goals, milestones, and mechanisms for assessing progress. . . . The need isn’t just to insure the safety of nano-enabled products, but also to avert a public backlash against the technology, which could grow if health risks aren’t seen as adequately addressed.
. . . The NNI strategy document – NRC panelists claim – is simply a compendium of federally funded projects without any unifying vision or sense of shared purpose.
An advance copy of the NRC report leaked out to the press in December 2008, leading NNI to post a rebuttal on its website , presenting the strategy document not an implementation plan, "But rather a higher-level description of the inter-agency approach to nanotechnology related EHS research."
One can only hope that the growing divide can be bridged. Both sides have much to contribute to the future growth of nanotechnology and a split into opposing camps serves neither side very well.
The final part of this article turns toward a different, in many ways more worrisome, topic. In January 2008, the EPA launched its nanoscale materials voluntary stewardship program, which urged companies to report information to EPA about their use, manufacture, import, etc of nanoparticles; according to the article, as of January 2009, only 29 companies had responded.
While companies might fear that their trade secrets might be revealed to competitors, it is more likely that what companies are afraid of are potential product liability lawsuits, legitimate or not, that would keep them in court for years (the shadow of asbestos again) and giving information to groups that would use the general public lack of understanding of nanotechnology – to most people, this is still science fiction – to create a climate of fear. At this stage in its development, the nanoindustry might be compared to the nuclear industry from 1950 until the mid-1980s. For the general public in that period, nuclear power was a mysterious thing beyond the non-scientist’s ability to understand. For most people, nuclear energy meant only one thing: the power to destroy, personified in the form of Godzilla. Interest groups opposed to the further development of nuclear energy were able to use companies involved in the construction and running of nuclear power plants unwillingness to provide the public with information to create an effective climate of fear and opposition to the point where the industry nearly shut down after 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl.
To avoid this fate
. . . nanoparticle toxicity data need to be made more widely available to insure public support for the technology.
rather than burying the information in annual reports or SEC filings, such as a 10K or a 10Q, which, while they are great sources of information, are also usually great cures for insomnia.
In an age of calls for greater transparency in both government and business, one can only hope that the nanoindustry will seize the moment and release more information in a form and language that the general public can understand. As someone once observed, sunshine is the best disinfectant.