Monday, December 05, 2005

Nano Hazards

I've been remiss about discussing the growing anxiety in the health & safety and environmental communities about the potential hazards of nanotechnologies. Even the Washington Post beat me to it:
At issue are "nanomaterials," made of intricately engineered particles and fibers as small as 1/80,000th the diameter of a human hair. At that scale the laws of chemistry and physics bend, giving familiar substances novel chemical, electrical and physical properties.

Nanomaterials are already being integrated into a wide range of products, including sports equipment, computers, food wrappings, stain-resistant fabrics and an array of cosmetics and sunscreens -- a market expected to exceed $1 trillion a year within a decade. Preliminary studies suggest that most of these products do not pose significant risks in their bulk form or embedded in the kinds of products that so far use them.

But the same cannot be said of the particles themselves, which can pose health risks to workers where they are made and may cause health or environmental problems as discarded products break down in landfills
The Post describes a number of potential hazards:
  • Lab animal studies have already shown that some carbon nanospheres and nanotubes behave differently than conventional ultrafine particles, causing fatal inflammation in the lungs of rodents, organ damage in fish and death in ecologically important aquatic organisms and soil-dwelling bacteria.

  • Researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology found that nanoparticles of aluminum oxide stunt the growth of roots on several crops -- including soybeans and corn, mainstays of U.S. agriculture.

  • Japanese researchers found that a kind of nanosphere that some want to use to deliver drugs or vaccines into the body is a potent stimulator of immune-reaction genes, perhaps explaining fatal inflammatory responses seen in animals exposed to nanomaterials.

  • And a California team working with laboratory-grown cells showed that carbon nanotubes specifically activate "cell suicide genes."
One might think that the dawn of a new technological revolution would be a good time to set up some new models for addressing potential hazards before people -- generally workers -- and the environment start paying the price in disease and destruction.

But you would be wrong. It seems the new materials are stimulating the same old tired debates:
In documents that are now being finalized for public comment, the [EPA]calls for a "stewardship program" that would be voluntary. Manufacturers would be asked to alert officials about nanoproducts they are making and to provide information about environmental or health risks they have uncovered. But they would not be required to make such reports or to do special studies.

Although the agency may at some point feel the need to impose stricter controls, the voluntary approach has the advantage that it can be implemented more quickly, said Charles Auer, director of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. He added that the agency is not sure it understands enough about the new materials to know how best to regulate them.

"This way we can develop something, gain experience and learn more about what we're dealing with," Auer said.

Others, including scientist Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which recently withdrew from an EPA advisory group out of frustration with the direction the agency was going, call that approach toothless.

"I think it's absolutely necessary that we have enforceable regulations and that we don't put these materials in commercial products unless we know they can be used safely over the full life cycle of the product," Sass said. [emphasis added]
This is an interesting justification that EPA uses. The "voluntary" approach is faster -- essentially rewarding industry for putting up obstacles to a process that could protect workers and consumers.

Adequate funding is also missing in action: industry and environmental advocates say that at least $100 million a year is needed for research on environmental, health and safety implications of nanotechnology while experts estimate that about $6 million per year is actually being spent.

Something Missing?

What may be most significant about this article is what's not there: any mention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

OSHA is somewhat understandable, if not justifiable. You'd be hard-pressed to find anything on the OSHA website mentioning nanotechnologies. The omission of any mention of NIOSH is much more surprising (and disturbing), considering that NIOSH is the only government agency with the mandate to research worker health and safety hazards, and considering that the NIOSH website has an enormous amount of material addressing the potential hazards of nanotechnologies.

Sloppy reporting by the Post, or inadequate outreach by NIOSH? Or both? We ask, you speculate.

More information on the potential workplace hazards of nanotech at Hazards.