Itâ€™s an early stage, but are we detecting signs of a nano safety bandwagon?
A variety of people were in Washington last week, some calling for â€œ10% of federal nano spending to go toward safety studies.â€ This seems like an unworkable idea to us, and is a classic case of putting the cart in front of the horse.
Carbon nanotubes and fullerenes are two of the most widely discussed nanomaterials, both in terms of being wondrous world caging materials, and their ability to cause environmental damage. However, their applications, despite ten years of research are severely limited. Supposing we had earmarked 10% of all R&D money for safety studies into these materials, then we would have squandered a large amount of tax payers money to determine the safety of materials that most people will never come into contact with.
A comparison with the pharmaceutical industry, which creates new compounds on a routine basis, may give us a more workable approach. In this industry, the onus is firmly on the companies to prove that their compounds are safe before they are allowed onto the market. We donâ€™t hear the pharma industry demanding that federal funds be used to perform these safety studies. We accept that the difference is that the pharmaceutical industry has specific products, something with a known concentration of a known compound whereas many of the nanotech applications often discussed do not. We may have data on the toxicity or otherwise of a nanomaterial, but whether this presents any risk is determined by the application. Is it a free material or bound in another matrix, do its applications mean that there is a risk of it entering the environment, how does it interact both other materials within the same application?
Simply throwing more government money at this area may not be the best approach, and will have little impact. Toxicology studies take time, and there are already a number of well-established initiatives underway around the world, with more in the pipeline in Europe. While a figure of 10% may satisfy some of the NGOs campaigning for more safety spending, it may only serve to encourage speculative studies into materials with few applications. Why not also dedicate 10% of the budget to ethical studies?
Industry makes use of many hazardous substances, but few of these are used outside of a controlled environment where they present a risk to the general public. Those that do are subject to regulation and have to be proven to be safe, whether a drug or a food additive.
Government funded research will only tell us whether a material presents a hazard. Whether it also presents a risk depends entirely on the application. There is a huge difference between the application of the same material as a polymer additive and a cosmetic when it comes to presenting a risk of interaction with the human body.
Any studies of the safety of nanotechnologies must be linked to specific products, and must be preformed by the manufacturers of these products as a condition of them being sold. These regulatory bodies are already in place for most industries, and making use of them is the only sure way of allaying public fears