Small Matter or Big Risk: Nanotechnology and Environmental Public Health
3:00 pm US Eastern Time
On this call we discussed how nanotechnology is defined, the science behind its human health effects, the uses of nanomaterials, nanotech regulation issues, and the future implications of this modern technology.
Call Moderator: Susan W. Marmagas, MPH, Director of Health Programs, Collaborative on Health and the Environment
- Dr. Ken Geiser, Co-Director, UMass Lowell Center for Sustainable Production
- Dr. Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
- Karen Florini, Senior Attorney, Environmental Defense, Washington DC
- David Rejeski, Director, Foresight and Governance Project & Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, Woodrow Wilson Center
1. Welcome: Susan W. Marmagas, MPH, Director of Health Programs, Collaborative on Health and the Environment
I'm Susan Marmagas, and I'm with the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. It’s truly my pleasure today to moderate this call on nanotechnology.
We know that the issue of nanotechnology is emerging, and is of concern to many. While at the same time there are benefits of nanotechnology, we want to understand and ensure that we are addressing the risks that may be posed from nanotechnology. These risks could be to workers, consumers, the public and the environment.
Today’s call is really going to look at this question of, "How do we get ahead of this emerging technology to protect public health, and learn from the lessons in the topic field?" It’s an important question—I think ongoing—and it’s one that we often talk about within the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. For today’s call we've organized to cover a number of issues around nanotechnology: background on nanotech - what is it?; setting a frame; health implications of nanotechnology; policy efforts—both voluntary, regulatory and legislatively; and also, looking ahead on into the future—to look at issues both in the short-term and in the longer term. What are the implications of nanotechnology down the road?
We have put a call together today with 4 speakers—trying to cover the breadth of this issue. We really look forward to the discussion that will follow the presentation, because there are additional people on this call with expertise in this area, and we look forward to a lively discussion.
The 4 speakers are going to set the context, and talk about what nanotechnology is. They're going to cover the health effects of science. They're going to talk about policy and regulatory issues, with regard to nanotechnology. They're also going to talk about the public perceptions of nanotech, from some recent work that’s been done at the Woodrow Wilson Center. As I mentioned, we're going to have plenty of time for discussion. We're going to keep the presentations brief, so that we have time to really get into the q-and-So with no further ado, I'd like to now introduce each speaker before that person speaks. Then, we will open the q-and-a after all the speakers have finished their presentations.
The first speaker is Dr. Ken Geiser. Dr. Kenneth Geiser is Professor of Work Environment, and the Co-Director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Dr. Geiser is one of the authors of the Massachusetts Toxics-Reduction Act. He’s served as the director of the Toxics-Use Reduction Institute from its founding in 1990 until 2003. Dr. Geiser?
2. First Speaker: Dr. Ken Geiser, Co-Director of Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Mass, Lowell
My task is to talk about context. I can just jump right in by starting with the issue of scale. A nanometer is about a billionth of a meter in size. It’s about the size of a DNA, or the size of a few atoms put together. There's nothing particularly new here. Much of life’s chemistry takes place at the nanoscale.
Humans have evolved in an environment which is rich in nanoscale materials. Natural nanoscale particles are easily manufactured in combustion operations or grinding operations. We've been making particles with pigments and carbon black for centuries.
So, what’s new here? The newness comes from our very recent ability to manipulate substances at the molecular level. Only since the 1980s, when Harold Croto and Richard Smalley first introduced the Carbon 60 molecule—which they called the Buckminster Fullerine because of its geodesic shape—and at the same time that we developed the atomic-force microscope measure, have we been self-consciously manufacturing nanoscaled particles with purposely designed functionality.
Indeed, the federal definition of nanotechnology has 3 parts. The definition is, "Materials or structures between 1 and 100 nanometers." Secondly, "with novel or new properties," and third, "that can be manufactured at the molecular scale." This is a big revolution. We are investing big in nanotechnology. Some 30 countries have nanotechnology research programs. The US federal government is sinking over $1 billion per year into nanotechnology research and development.
Now, nanotechnology suggests an active device. However, most research and most products on the market are simply passive materials that we should be calling, "engineered nano-particles." This is where we are focused. These include 1-dimensional and nano-particles used to make very thin films, two-dimensional nano-tubes, which are tiny rolls of metallic particles, and 3-dimensional spheres, which are often called quantum-dots. These passive nano-materials make up what would be called the "first-generation of nanotechnology." This includes things like nano-structured metals, polymers, ceramics, composites and catalysts. This is what makes up most of the industry today.
However, research is now entering the second-generation, which is focused on active nano-materials such as sensors, monitors, amplifiers, switches, solar-collectors and targeted drugs. They all have a characteristic of being able to respond to changing conditions.
This projected a third-generation, which will focus on systems of nano-structures—making up very tiny devices and little machines. But this is yet a ways off. And there's talk of a fourth-generation, the so-called "molecular nanosystem," which people like Michael Creighton and Eric Drexler, who coined the term, "Grey Goo," worry about because this is where devices become self-replicating.
That’s about what we know well. We know far less about a lot of important things. There's no national inventory of nanotechnology companies. About 18 months ago, there was an estimate that there are some 200-300 US companies that are engaged in or preparing to engage in nanoscale production.
There's no national list of nanoscale products. However, scores of manufacturing firms are touting products with nanoscale materials. They range from strengthening stabilizers and composites used to detect radiation in sunscreens, used as brighteners in cosmetics, used in inks for computer printers, used as catalysts in reactions, and used as filters in water treatment.
In a couple of minutes, you're going to hear more about the risks of some of these. Let me just talk a moment about the potential benefits, because there is talk about the environmental benefits from these. The first has to do with waste remediation. There's work now that shows that increased reactivity, increased service area - allow nanoparticles to be used to react with contaminants in environments. For instance, zero valent iron has been used to inhibit chlorinated hydrocarbon movement in groundwaters. And there are others that have been used to contain polycyclic hydrocarbons.
Second—there are sensors. Biological and defense fields are driving the development of sensors for detecting biological and chemical agents. Many of these could be used for sensing environmental contaminants at very low concentrations in real-time, and from remote locations.
There's water treatment - nanoscale filtration. Systems using zeolytes could enable more water reuse for cycling and desalinization. Currently, there's significant research going on in this area.
Then there's industrial and farm production. Highly reactive nano-fluids and designer-selective catalysts can support green manufacturing - by increasing energy and material sufficiency and minimizing solvent use and reducing waste-generation. The Department of Agriculture is currently funding research on precision-targeted nanoscale delivery systems for fertilizers and biocydes that would reduce the use of nitrogen, phosphorous and pesticides in agricultural production.
Lastly, there's energy - current research on high-strength, low-weight composites that reduce the weight of transportation vehicles leading to substantial reductions in energy-consumption. Carbon and metal nanowires that demonstrate high-conductivity could significantly reduce the energy losses in electrical transmission.
It’s estimated that nanotechnology applications - in generating lightweight vehicles, solid-state lighting, self-optimizing motors and smart roofs and high-conductive transmission lines - could cut the nation’s energy consumption by 15% per year. That’s some of the real environmental benefits that are talked about, and give us a positive view on what nanotechnology could deliver.
With that, I'm going to turn it over to my colleagues, to talk about some more sobering ideas. Thank you.
Susan Marmagas: Our next speaker is Dr. Andrew Maynard, who is the Chief Science Advisor with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Dr. Maynard is a physicist by training. He formerly worked at the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health, where he worked on nanoparticle exposure in the workplace. He’s going to speak today about health effects of science and the risks of nanotechnology.
3. Second Speaker: Dr. Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor, Project on Emergin Nanotechnologies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
I have the gargantuan task of talking about nanotechnology and health risks in 5-7 minutes. So all I'm going to be able to do is really touch the surface of this subject, and give you, really, an overview. And perhaps some talking points for the discussion later on.
Let’s start from the beginning, and try to put some context on this. I think, to do this, it’s useful to go back to the fundamentals of what nanotechnology is. Ken gave that very nice overview of nanotechnology. One of the ways of looking at it is that by manipulating matter at a very, very small scale and controlling it at a very small scale, it enables us to do new things - either to produce materials with new properties, or being able to put together structural functions of atoms to be able to do new and innovative things.
As soon as you have that context, there's a fairly obvious question that flows on from there. That is, if we have materials and products that do new things, are there new risks associated with those materials and products? This is really the central question that’s been driving a lot of the discussion around nanotechnology and health risks—or nanotechnology and environmental risks.
Well, it’s okay to ask that question. But then, to flush it out, we really need to go back to the science and ask, "Is there any scientific basis for really exploring this question in any more depth?" That’s really what I want to get into.
I want to start from a historical perspective. Ken has already noted that there's nothing new about nanometer scale or nanometer-sized particles of materials. I think this is a very important point to make. Ever since there's been fire around, we've been exposed to nanometer-sized particles in the air. Even as we're sitting here at the moment, listening to me speak. Unless you're sitting in a clean room, you're going to be breathing in a lot of nanometer-sized particles with each breath. Your skin is going to be exposed to nanometer-sized particles.
So it’s important to ask the question, "What is different about some of these engineered nanomaterials, which may lead to them presenting a greater risk than the materials we're exposed to every day?"
But there's also a flip side to the historical perspective. That is that we're exposed to very small particles on a daily basis. We also know that being exposed to the wrong sort of particles can make people pretty sick, and even lead to death. It’s been the history of professional hygiene for the last 100 years or so—understanding precisely what it is about inhalation exposure, for instance, to airborne particles, which can really cause quite serious illnesses. So we do know that we need to be cautious when people are exposed to certain small particles and small structured particles.
Going on to engineered nanomaterials. Let’s get into the science, and ask the question, first of all—"Is there anything unique about these, which really makes us sit up and think?" The first thing we need to look at here is the importance of structure within these materials. We know that with most conventional materials, we can understand their potential health impacts by looking at the chemistry of the materials. But what is unusual about nano-structured materials is that their property depends on the structure - how the atoms are actually physically arranged within these materials.
That means we need to change our paradigms for understanding potential health impacts. We need to move away from that chemistry and mass-space paradigm, and start asking the question, "How is it the structure of these materials potentially affect their behavior in the body?"
When you marry that with research that’s been done over the last 10 or 15 years, a number of things begin to become apparent. Just looking at 3 of those aspects - the first is looking at the size of particles. Specifically, looking at nanometer-diametered particles. We now know that science is very important to determining how particles behave in the body, and where they actually end up in the body. For instance, if you look at nanometer-sized particles in the lungs, they don’t appear to be cleared in the way that large particles are cleared. But they actually have the ability to pass out of the lungs into the bloodstream, and hit other organs within the body—and even enter cells within the body—something which large particles can’t do. There is some evidence—only in rodents, at the moment—that these very, very small particles—if they deposit in the nasal region—can actually travel up the olfactory nose into the brain. Again, something that large particles can’t do.
The second aspect here, looking at structure, is the shape of particles. We know, historically, that with materials such as asbestos, shape is very important in determining the biological response to them, once they're in the body. It seems now that if you take some fairly esoteric engineered nanomaterials—such as, for instance, carbon nanotubes—shape plays a very important role in how the body responds to those particles.
The third aspect here, which is a subdivision of shape—is looking at the importance of the surface of these particles. Imagine here that you have these engineered nanostructured materials which are generally insoluble. So if they get into the body, they will retain their physical structure. That means that most of what happens in the body happens at the surface of those particles. There is clear evidence now that—certainly, if you're looking at nanostructured materials in the lungs, it’s the surface area and the surface chemistry of these particles which determines what happens - not the matter of the particles.
Just underlying how important that might be - imagine you could take a 5-micron-sized particle, pushed it into the lungs - you get a certain response. Now, if that response is associated with the surface of the particle - if you take that 5-micron particle and split it down into 5-nanometer-diameter particles, so you have the same mass of material - the surface area goes up by a factor of 1,000. So if you have a surface area mediated response, you would expect that response to increase possibly by a factor of 1,000. This is why it’s important, when you're looking at a structural basis for activity, to understand the structural nature of the material that we're dealing with.
Those 3 aspects have really just looked at one area of the risk equation - looking at the potential for hazards. There is also, obviously, another side of this. We need to understand something about exposure. Clearly, if you're looking at risks, exposure is critical to understanding the magnitude of risks. This is an area where we have very, very little information with engineered nanomaterials at the moment. What we do know—two things that we do know—is, first—engineered nanomaterials are really quite precious, still. People are making them intentionally, and they really don’t want to lose them, which means that they don’t want exposure to occur.
The second thing we know is that many of these materials love to stick together. You look at experimental results from carbon-nanotubes, for instance. It’s very, very hard to release them in a form that people are going to be exposed to them. However, you need to counterbalance those two perspectives with two other perspectives. One is that there are conventional exposures that may occur in very low mass-concentrations. Because of this structural dependency on properties, it may be that we can have fairly significant health dangers at low mass-concentrations, or it may be high-number concentrations or high surface-area concentrations.
The other aspect here is that we've got to be aware of unintentional releases, and their impact on human health. It may be that in a perfect system, people aren’t exposed to these materials. But somewhere, at some point, someone is going to be exposed.
Summarizing all of that down, looking at the state of knowledge we have at the moment, I would say we have what I would call a number of red flags. We have enough evidence there to say, "We need to sit up and be a little bit careful. A little bit cautious about what the impact of some of these engineered nanomaterials did on human health." But we don’t have enough information to carry out a quantitative risk assessment.
In fact, we're at a point of uncertainty, at the moment. We know there are important questions there that need answers, but we don’t know what the answers are. Clearly, what we've got to be able to do, if this technology is going to succeed and we're going to have safe nanotechnologies, is move from that area of uncertainty to an area of certainty, when it comes to risk. The way we're going to have to do that is by carrying out an awful lot more research to field some of these critical questions concerning how these materials may potentially impact our health.
I'm going to wrap up, there. But I would just say one final thing. Ken opened this up very well by pointing out that for various generations of nanotechnology and engineered nanomaterials, virtually all the scientific information we have on risk, at the moment, is based on that first generation of engineered nanomaterials - the very simple materials. One of the big challenges here is trying to understand the potential impacts of the second-, third-, fourth-generation of materials. This is where we move out of an area where advances are evolutionary—in terms of our understanding—to areas where, really, we have to make fundamental leaps in our understanding of the interactions between some of these materials, and devices on the body.
I'm going to wrap it up, there. Hopefully, I've said enough to spark off one or two interesting questions, later on. Thank you.
Susan Marmagas: Thank you, Dr. Maynard. We're going to move on to our next speaker. Karen Florini is the Senior Attorney at Environmental Defense. She is going to speak about federal and legislative and regulatory matters. Her area of expertise is in nanotechnology, toxic chemicals, antibiotic resistance, and she’s going to cover the regulatory and policy issues related to nanotechnology. Karen.
4. Third Speaker: Karen Florini, Senior Attorney, Environmental Defense
I want to start by mentioning that what I'm going to be talking about primarily is the regulatory arena for existing and relatively near-term engineered nanomaterials - not some of the multi-generation-out ones. Multigeneration and technological—rather than human terms. I don’t at all mean to imply that those things are not of significance. But they are still the realm of a lot of speculation. There's nothing that’s on the market yet, or coming on to the market, along those lines, and so our focus is more on the stuff that is on—or about to come on—the market.
I also want to start by just mentioning briefly—we think it’s in everyone’s interest not to be repeating the mistakes of the past, with investments in DDT and superfunds and genetically modified organisms. That applies not only to consumers, but also to industry and government. We've got to be proactive, and think about the full lifecycle of risks, as we examine potential concerns about nano.
What is the regulatory infrastructure, as it now exists? Well there's not much there. There are some that may apply in theory, but almost none that currently apply in practice. Very, very few existing regulations appear applicable. There may be some statutory authorities that could be applied, but to do so would require full-blown rule-making procedures, which would take quite a lot of time. Very few, if any, are actually under development at this point. In fact, I'm not aware of any nano-specific regulations that are now being actively developed.
There are, however, some positions of OSHA—the Occupational Safety & Health Act—the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and a Toxic Substance-Control Act, where existing regulations and programs may apply now. That’s what I'm going to mostly be speaking about. OSHA’s general duty clause - its nuisance-dust standard and its respiratory protection standard—all, in theory, apply now. But all of them have serious limits, which we can get into in questions-and-answers, if people would like some more specifics on that.
In addition, I want to mention that CDC NIOSH has put out what’s sort of a guidance document, but not quite. It’s "Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology: An Information Exchange with NIOSH." That’s what the name of the document is. It is open for public comment. It actually has some reasonably intelligent observations. Although, as I mentioned, the exact status of this thing is unusual to say the least. And of course, whatever’s in there is clearly not binding on anybody.
The second statute to briefly mention—the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act—does require FDA to do premanufacturing review of drugs and medical devices. That applies to nano-substances, as much as to any other kinds of substance. However, FDA has noted that it only regulates "the claims" made by a product’s sponsor. So if the manufacturer is making no nanotechnology claims regarding a manufacturing operation or the performance of the product, then FDA may not even know that the product is a nanotech product or that it contains nano-materials.
The other thing that’s very important to mention is that there is no premanufacturing review of cosmetics. That is of concern because there are at least some current applications that contain nanomaterials in cosmetics and sunscreens. While FDA was asked to and did do at least a preliminary sort of evaluation of nano-titanium dioxide used in sunscreens, that was because people specifically came in and requested that. That’s certainly not anything that’s universal or mandatory. FDA itself notes, "FDA has only limited authority over some potentially high-risk products, e.g. cosmetics." The other thing that’s important to keep in mind is that there is no lifecycle review, with respect to cosmetics that the Agency would be looking at the direct health implications to the user. Not in terms of impacts at the production stage or as the cosmetics are washed down the drain.
I also want to talk briefly about the Toxic Substance Control Act. TSCA nominally regulates essentially all chemicals other than pesticides, and other than ones regulated by the FDA under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act. For chemicals that are deemed, "new chemicals," there is a requirement to submit what is called a "premanufacture notification." There are 2 issues of concern, with respect to this. One is that it’s not entirely clear which nanomaterials are new. Some—many—of the nanomaterials that are now on or approaching the market are crystals of things that are basically much smaller crystals or much smaller particles than other materials that have been around for a while. For example, I just mentioned nano-titanium dioxide. That’s an FDA application. But if there were non-sunscreen uses of it, it would nominally fall under TSCA.
EPA has not yet issued guidance as to whether nano-sized crystals of things that are already on the market qualify as, "new." In addition, and somewhat more troublingly, some folks are arguing that things that have the same chemical formula aren’t "new," anyway. I personally think that is a preposterous argument. Because under it, you could say that diamonds and graphite are the same thing. And clearly, that’s not the case.
The other limitation of PMNs—premanufacture notifications—is that there is no requirement that they actually contain any toxicity datIf there are toxicity data that the manufacturer is aware of, they must be disclosed. But that’s a far cry from actually saying, "Go out and find out anything about the toxicity of this substance."
In addition, under the TSCA, EPA has the authority to issue regulations requiring disclosure of certain kinds of information relating to use and exposure, and disclosure of existing toxicity studies. However, again these are for products that are already on the market, or for new ones. However, the Agency has not issued any such regulations at this time. An EPA advisory committee did recommend that EPA initiate both a voluntary program and a companion-regulatory one that would bring forward that kind of information. But note this program has yet to be launched, and it’s not quite clear what’s going on with it.
The last thing I’ll mention about TSCA is that in terms of actually dealing with risks, it’s a very weak read. There's a limited ability to do anything much, as indicated by the fact that only about a half-dozen regulations have ever actually been issued to control risks under TSCA, in terms of chemicals once they're on the market. There has been more-extensive use made of some of the other provisions. But the key provisions on addressing risks to substances after they're already on the market, is a pretty weak provision.
The bottom line, then, is: don’t hold your breath for regulatory safeguards, especially in the near-term. There is some activity that is going on in terms of voluntary approaches. As I mentioned, the EPA potential initiative on reporting - that was recommended by the advisory committee. There are also international standard-setting organizations such as ASTM that have nanotech committees that are looking at creating voluntary standards-of-care and standards-of-practice. Those proceedings are very much at an early stage, and it doesn’t look like anything’s going to be coming out, imminently. And it’s also very unclear what they will contain when they do come out. Environmental Defense is working with DuPont—a major chemical producer—to see whether it is possible for us and them to develop, jointly, a framework that would provide for safe management of nanotechnology. But again, that is still very much in the initial phases. And when and if and what it will say remains to be seen.
Andrew has said that one of the things that’s clearly needed is a lot more federal funding, a lot more research on what the health and safety and environmental implications of nanotechnology are. Only 4% of the national nanotechnology initiative’s billion-dollar annual budget currently goes for environmental health and safety implications. Fourteen organizations recently sent a letter to appropriations committees, urging a substantial increase in that. That letter is still open for additional signatures, and a copy of it is on the CHE resources page for today’s call. Anyone who would like to be added to that—please contact me, and I'm happy to add you to the list of signatories.
Susan Marmagas: Our final presenter today is Dave Rejeski. David Rejeski is the Director of the Project on Emerging Technologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center—formerly an EPA representative to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and formerly with the White House Office of Science & Technology. Dave Rejeski holds graduate degrees in both public administration and environmental design. He’s going to talk about public perceptions regarding nanotechnology.
5. Fourth Speaker: David Rejeski, Director, Project on Emerging Technologies, Woodrow Wilson Center
It’s interesting how we always talk about the public last. But I would maintain that this is probably one of those really large wildcards on the future for nanotech. I'm going to just quickly go through and summarize some research that we did in June. It took place in 12 groups across the country. These are what are known as experiential issue groups. We sampled about 180 people. The people in these groups were almost an exact reflection of the 2000 census, in terms of demographics.
Unlike focus groups, these groups were actually given information about nanotech. They were told what it is, what the applications might be—right now and in the future. And we also gave them a lot of background material on government—various agencies, what their responsibilities were, in terms of regulation and oversight.
Let me just give you some of the overarching findings. The first thing you can assume is probably 80-90% of the people that you’ll run into have never heard of nanotechnology. So how are they going to learn? From whom and with what message? That’s probably going to be very, very critical to long-term public acceptance.
Once we educated these people to a certain degree, this is kind of what they told us in the groups. A lot of them anticipate major benefits. The majority of the people believed, over the long term, that the benefits would either exceed or equal the risks of nanotechnology. The areas that interested them the most were medical applications, followed by consumer applications. And then, applications in the area of energy production, environmental protection, food and nutrition.
Overwhelmingly, all of these people, and a lot of people that have been subsequently studied in the UK and also in Europe, were concerned about the existence of products in the marketplace, and also the expenditure of billions of dollars in—essentially—tax-payer money, with virtually little or no public involvement. So the public really—these people that we sampled—wanted to be included in some of the decision-making processes.
We talked to them specifically about what they were concerned with, in terms of nanotechnology, and a number of things rose to the top. 1—they were concerned that there actually were some big unknowns out there. These were effects that could not be predicted by anybody, including the nanoscientists and the toxicologists. They were concerned about the efficacy of the regulatory system, in terms of dealing with nanotechnology. And they were concerned about human health risks, both short-term, and they also had a considerable about of concern about long-term effects.
I would say they were lower-level concerns, but they were interesting—like biotech - they were worried about, "Are we playing God, here, with our ability to actually manipulate matter at this scale?" They were concerned about—potentially—military uses and abuses. And there's also a concern about what happens when this gets into the food chain. A lot of their perceptions are driven by their experiences with previous technologies. So there were—essentially—a lot of analogies that were made to past technologies, ranging from nuclear power to many biotech applications.
The interesting thing we found out is that despite the concerns, there was virtually no support for a ban on nanotechnology research or products. About ¾ of them believed that a ban would be over-reacting. There was, however, a very, very high demand for effective regulation. We actually tested the idea, and Karen mentioned this, about how people felt about voluntary agreements.
About 55% really believed that government control beyond voluntary standards is necessary. About 1/3 are unsure, and only about 10% actually supported the idea of voluntary standards, or believed those would be adequate. Attached to that is a general low public trust in government. Both this study, and one that was done about a year before, found that 90-95% of the people in the study had low or virtually no trust in government, in terms of managing any of the risks associated with nanotechnology. That was only exceeded by their suspicions of industry.
A lot of them had a widespread perception that industry pushes these products to market without adequate safety testing - they were going to make too many errors affecting peoples' health, and that they generally put their own motives ahead of consumer safety concerns. When we asked them to tell us how to improve the trust levels - I think this is probably one of the most-interesting findings - there was an enormous convergence around 2 things that they wanted. This accounted for about 75% of the variance.
The first one was they wanted more testing before the products were introduced into the marketplace. And they were hungry for information in the US. That was just general information. "Tell us what you're doing, industry and government, with nanotech." There have been some similar studies in the UK, where a lot of that leads to concerns about labeling. I think the other interesting thing was we asked them specifically where they were finding out about nanotechnology. About 20-25% said it was from public television or radio. Another 20% indicated it was actually from other people—just word-of-mouth.
We've also done some subsequent work looking at how nanotech is represented in the mediI wanted to spend a minute or so on that. Basically, the big news there is, it’s not in the mediThere's actually been very little media coverage. We've looked at studies between the US and the UK and the US and Canada—and what you find is there actually is not much coverage, in terms of how the news is framed. Certainly, in Canada and the US, there tends to be a lot of framing around profiling of what the technology is. It’s a business and sort of market news story.
Probably 20-30% of the stories that come out actually include some sort of risk-benefit discussion. There are studies at Lehigh that indicate that generally, when EH&S issues are covered around nanotech, that the coverage has been relatively even-handed in the press. At least, once you get below the headlines. Quite often the headlines get sensationalized, but the body of the text covers a fairly balanced view of what we know and what we don’t know, and what the risks and benefits might be.
I'm going to stop there. I think there is obviously enormous opportunity—and probably a huge challenge, here—when it comes to public engagement, and the government and industry has not even begun that engagement process.
6. Discussion and Q&A
Aditi Vaidya, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC): I first wanted just to thank all of the speakers. I think it was great to get an overview of the different aspects of potential implications of nanomaterials.
The comment I want to make is that here at SVTC, we are looking at nanotechnology in a variety of ways - but first, we kind of were thinking as nanotech as not a single-scale technology - that it’s really a platform similar to the industrial revolution. You can think of nanotech as a new industrial revolution because it has impacts on a variety of industries and different sectors within markets.
In terms of community impacts, there are two quick examples that I'd love peoples' comments on. One is the implication on farmworkers of the use of nanomaterials in agribusiness. And we haven't actually started to work with farmers on this, and I'm wondering if anyone has started to talk to agricultural workers or farmers on the implications—the known implications or the perspective of implications [inaudible].
The second, really, is that the Department of Defense is one of the largest funders of nano-research. One of the things that they're promoting by the use of nanotechnology is remediation. So one thing that we have started to do is talk to folks who are organizing around military toxic bases who have been trying to come up with alternative solutions to environmental remediation, and know very little about nanotech. What we're trying to do is educate them. But given the wide array of scientific information, we wanted to be able to keep them in a loop of what the up-and-coming science is.
Given the little known definitive science, I'm wondering how folks would start to outreach and educate the most-impacted communities and workers?
Andrew Maynard: I can say just a little bit about outreach and education, very briefly. I think this is one of the big challenges we face at the moment - just getting people asking the right questions in different communities. I think we can make an awful lot of progress, if the right people were aware of the questions to ask. By that, I mean, you look at—say—the occupational hygiene community. At the moment, there are relatively few people that have doubt or even know they need to ask specific questions about engineered nanomaterials. At least it’s a start, in asking the question, "If we have an engineered nanomaterial here, what is different about it, which may change the risks it presents?" I think we would make an awful lot of progress in protecting peoples' health. In that respect, I think there's a huge need for very, very basic outreach and education, where the people are actually dealing with these issues on a day-by-day basis.
David Rejeski: The first question or the first point about farm-workers, I think was an interesting one. I think it raises the broader issues. Trying to get some sense of when particular communities of interest will be impacted, and how. In the case of the food and agricultural applications, I think those are going to be quite varied. They're coming down the pike.
We're releasing—at the end of March—an inventory of a lot of the nanotech-based research and agriculture and food. One of the things I think people will be able to see is what those products might look like in a year to five years out. That also gives you some sense of who might be impacted.
So we've done an analysis looking specifically at what might be manifest in particular areas, ranging from food-packaging to pesticide-delivery. You can also get a sense of what the impact to communities might be. Whether it’s post-harvest, so food-packers might be impacted pre-harvest - that sort of thing.
I think one of the ways you get a handle on that is actually going upstream a little bit and taking a look at what the research is, and systematically analyzing that. But in the case of—certainly—the ag sector and the food-processing sector, I think this database will give people some sense of who might be affected, and the timeframes.
Dr. Jennifer Sass, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC): Thanks very much to the speakers. It was an excellent presentation. I have one question. Who do you think is best set up to do the kind of testing that needs to get done? I guess part of that is, "Where do you think the funding should come from?" Should it come from all government, or partial government and part industry?
Do you think that government is best set up to do the testing? If you do, is it NIOSH? Is it National Toxicology Program? Should it be some independent? How do you envision this testing getting done?
Andrew Maynard: I think that there are multiple levels here that you've got to look at. You've got to look at both short-term needs, as well as long-term needs. You've also got to look at the need to develop a general level of understanding, as well as understanding on the specific products. I think there are going to be very different groups and different funding mechanisms for addressing each of those.
If you look at some of the more-immediate information needs - for instance, looking at, "What is the risk associated with materials that are being developed now—products that are on the market now?" I think there are some very, very specific questions that have got to be answered, about the toxicity of specific materials, exposure to specific materials, and monitoring and controlling those exposures.
Because those are such specific questions, I think you've got to go to—first of all—government research agencies that are used to dealing with answering very, very specific research questions like that. That immediately brings you down to research agencies such as NIOSH and EPA, where they not only have a moderately disciplinary environment, they're used to having people in different disciplines working together to look at applied research. But they're also used to dealing with industry, as well—and working within a broader context.
I would also say that the government is in a very good position for providing a general level of information, which people can take and use to ensure that these materials and products are safe. There is also clearly a responsibility here within industry to develop very, very specific information. One of the divisions of late that has been discussed, which I think is a useful starting point, is looking at the government developing very broad based information, which can be used—and then industry developing product-specific information, which will ensure that those products and materials remain safe.
Ken Geiser: It’s just a matter of getting some general information out. We need information right now, and government agencies should be funded for that. Then, looking to industry for product-specific stuff. I think Andrew said it very well.
Andy Edgar: I'm in St. Paul, MinnesotI work at Clean Water Action. I was wondering if there's any research or connection with how much water is used to create things like nanotechnology, or if there's any sense of pollution in the creation of nanotechnology.
Karen Florini: Andrew, this is Karen Florini at Environmental Defense. I think it’s really important - we probably ought to be using the word “nanotechnologies”—plural—because it really varies in major way, the way you make different kinds of nano stuff. I think for that reason, it’s probably hard to give a cross-cutting answer to the question that you raised. There was an interesting session on "Greening of nanotechnology," that the Wilson Center did. Was that just last week, Dave?
David Rejeski: A couple of weeks back.
Karen Florini: Couple of weeks. To me, one of the strongest messages from that was how varied things are, and how much it kind of depends on the particular product. In other words, it’s not like semiconductors, which is really kind of one industry, where we're pretty clear what, specifically, you're looking at. It’s kind of all over the map—and potentially, even more so, going forward.
There are some kinds of Nano productions that give me some cause for concern, the way they make nanotubes, nowadays. It’s a pretty high-energy process, and not a particularly clean one, for example. But as I say, there are a lot of variations in what we mean when we say, "nanotechnology."
Andrew Maynard: I think one thing that’s interesting is that one of the dreams of nanotechnology is being able to build things up, asset-by-asset. So, in principle, you don’t have any redundancy there of material - you don’t have any waste. Now, if that dream could be realized, I think we could end up with processes which really do reduce either the amount of energy that’s used or the amount of pollution that’s produced.
However, I think we've got to be careful. A lot of these industries are dealing with very complex issues. It’s very easy to take a simplistic view that says, "Nanotechnology is going to lead to less pollution and less waste," whereas in reality, we may find that that is not the case, in some instances.
Dr. Jack Leiss, Constella Health Sciences: I'm an epidemiologist in North CarolinI'd like to ask - what is involved in measuring the material - these particles in the environment if you're trying to measure exposure, or even in the body? Can it be measured? What’s involved in it?
Andrew Maynard: Let me take that. The answer is, "Yes. They can be measured, to a certain extent." We have quite a number of technologies out there, which can measure either very, very small quantities of material—or measure very, very small particles. In air and water, it isn’t too difficult. It gets a little bit more complex if, say, you're looking at materials in the soil.
For instance, I’ll give you a couple of examples - electromicroscopy and atomic-fossil microscopy—are both two very good ways in which you can measure very, very small particles. You've also got technologies out there, which will measure structural components of materials such as the surface area.
The big problem we have is most of these techniques are limited to the laboratory. There are very, very few techniques out there, which you can get just off-the-shelf for very little money and go out—and even monitor exposure once you release it. So this is an area where certainly more research is needed to simplify the techniques and make them more applicable and more viable.
Jack Leiss: What about in the body?
Andrew Maynard: Right. In the body, things get a little bit more complex. But there are techniques which can actually be detected on a chemical basis - very, very small quantities of material, obviously. But—say you wanted to detect an individual nanoparticle or a cluster of nanoparticles in the nanoparticle state, in specific parts of the body. That is a challenge, which nobody has really solved yet.
Karen Florini: Andrew, I thought they just did a study - they managed to radio-label some nanotubes. Could they do tracer studies on them?
Andrew Maynard: They did. Yes. That was with mice. They were looking at the excretion of nanotubes. Again, yes—you can find traces of these materials, but finding traces is really hard science, and there are only a few labs that are available to do that.
Karen Florini: And there's also—as I understand it—some concern that just by putting… since we're talking about stuff that is active in such small scale, you may change the nature of what the thing is by putting a tracer on it.
Andrew Maynard: Yes. I think there are ways in which we're pretty sure that the traces could be denied. If, say, you take one atom out and put a radioactive atom in its place. But yes, there are other ways of adding tracers to the surface of particles, where you may well change the properties of those particles. So it’s still a very, very young area of science, and people are sort of learning from their mistakes at the moment.
Jack Leiss: And that wouldn’t help with a human-population study.
Andrew Maynard: Exactly. Yes. If you're looking at the raw population—especially in epidemiology—that are being exposed to a material, you can’t use tracers like that. There, there are no obvious solutions, at the moment. One thing that people have talked about is trying to develop appropriate biomarkers. But really, that’s no more than speculation at the moment, it’s something that is available and can be used.
Dr. Terry Collins, Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry, Carnegie Mellon University: I think I'd like to ask—specifically to Andrew—but maybe the other panelists. What efforts are being made to keep toxics out of the set of nanoparticles? I see a lot of literature out there on cadmium sulfide and cadmium solenoid and [inaudible] lead sulfide. If you're going to be using these to make nanomaterials, especially for distributive technologies, it’s hard to see how you could stay out of trouble.
Andrew Maynard: It’s a very interesting question, actually. I think we're sometimes in danger of getting so caught up in the nanoparticle side of things that we forget about what we know about how dangerous some of these other materials are. I think to answer that, you've got to look at context. Clearly, there are going to be some applications where you can’t use materials such as cadmium, and you're not going to have any exposure to either people or the environment. So you can have what I would call a relatively safe application. But then there are going to be other instances where it’s not going to be appropriate to use materials like that.
Now, I would also add to that. There has been quite a lot of focus about how you can make nanotechnologies that are somehow going to come into contact with people in the environment as benign as possible. That—even with using some of these more-dangerous substances - that’s somehow pacifying them. Or finding substitutes for those substances which retain functionality.
Ken Geiser: I could just add to that—just briefly—from lab stuff that’s going on in the universities I'm aware of. That is, there's almost no sensitivity to that. Only in the last 6 months have I seen much in the way of what you'd call "green," nanotechnology conversation. I think the Woodrow Wilson’s done a piece, but about 4 other places have picked up this theme. That leads over into a kind of "green chemistry" kind of interaction with this subject, which could raise that kind of question. I'd leave it at that, Terry. It would be a wonderful engagement.
Susan Marmagas: Great. At this point, I would like to thank all 4 presenters for excellent presentations, and great answers in the q-and-a discussion. Thank you all so very much. This obviously is an area of extensive interest, amongst the collaborative communities, and we're hoping that we will continue to have more conferences on nanotechnology and healthy vocations. So thank you again to all of the presenters and everyone who joined us today.
Eleni Sotos: Again, thank you to all the speakers and comments and questions. Two quick things I do want to mention - that we are going to have an audio MP3 file and the transcripts of this call up on our website over the coming week or two. And also, our next partnership call is scheduled for March 22nd at 9am PT, noon ET. We will be discussing endocrine disruptors—the current state and what we know about the impacts of environmental health. And we're going to have the authors of the seminal book, Our Stolen Future, on as presenters. Thanks, everyone. We look forward to talking with you next month. Bye-bye.