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Nanotechnology and Nanoscience The Royal Society

Nanotechnology: views of Scientists and Engineers

Health, safety, environmental and social issues

a) Overview

Following on from the technical sessions of the morning, the afternoon sessions comprised of three interdisciplinary groups which were asked to consider the following terms of reference of the study:

  • What health, safety and environmental issues arise from developments in nanotechnology, and what will be the benefits and risks?
  • Is there a need for new regulation?
  • What are the social and ethical issues of nanotechnology?
  • What other factors may influence the development of nanotechnology?

Although a clear minority of attendees had direct health, safety and environmental expertise, the majority of participants felt that it was important to consider and discuss these issues. This document represents a summary of the discussions in all three breakout groups. The issues raised will be followed up in subsequent meetings and workshops that the working group is holding.

b) Health, safety and environmental issues

The majority of participants raised nanoparticles as a topic of discussion due to their potential (and in some cases current) uses in the medical, cosmetic and electronics industries. A key point was made that although air breathing animals including humans have been exposed to nanoparticles generated by combustion throughout evolution, nanotechnology is now enabling new families of small particles, such as carbon nanotubes, which have potential applications across a wide spectrum of industries. Possible benefits of nanoparticles highlighted by the workshop included better targeted drugs and delivery, highly sensitive nanosensors for the detection of diseases, flat panel displays, sun creams, and ultra-strong, ultra-light composite materials.

Numerous positive environmental aspects of nanotechnology were discussed including applications under development in solar energy, desalination, water purification and bioremediation. The general point was also made that nanotechnology has the potential to create minimal waste, no solvent chemical processes with a much enhanced and efficient use of materials.

It was noted that new nanoparticles might impact on the environment during manufacture, use or disposal. It was suggested that one reasonably close to market application was the use of carbon nanotubes in displays and the environmental impacts of this were discussed. As discussed below, while some participants were keen to discover if nanotubes may have similar properties to asbestos, once they are fixed in materials and unable to become airborne, it was thought they would not present a risk. However, depending on the results of toxicity studies, disposal or recycling of products containing nanotubes may need to be carefully controlled to ensure containment.

Although the majority of attendees were not toxicologists, they were keen to discuss the issue of toxicity . They were aware that there are important adverse health effects of inhalation of asbestos fibres, and the similarity at least in shape was noted with carbon nanotubes. It was noted that in general, any long thin durable fibre is likely to cause similar effects to asbestos, unless it has an intrinsic property such as solubility in lung fluid making it less inherently toxic. The participants would like to see further study into the potential durability and toxicity of nanotubes.

There was less discussion on non-fibrous nanoparticles, although it was noted that such particles (generated by combustion and photochemistry) may be responsible for the adverse effects of air pollution. Such effects are likely to be dose-dependant, and this gave rise to discussion on the problems of measurement of nanoparticles against the background concentration of many tens of thousands in urban air. These problems will arise both with monitoring of control measures and with assessment of dose for toxicological studies. It was suggested that a trans-national effort was required to study the toxicology of nanoparticles.

The use of nanoparticles in skin preparations such as sunscreens was noted. It was thought that there was little knowledge at present on issues such as transport through the skin and toxic effects on dermal cells, and that appropriate toxicological studies were necessary.

Thin films of nanomaterials were generally considered to be of much less concern to health, safety and the environment due to the fact that they are attached to a surface and hence are much less likely to relocate to unwanted areas. Expected and current applications of nano-thin films included self-cleaning windows, computer disk drives, and smart coatings.

c) Regulation

Currently, dosage of particles for regulation purposes is defined by mass per unit volume, however this does not take into account particle size, which when approaching the nanometre scale can significantly affect properties such as absorption or reactivity. Hence it is clear that agglomeration, particle size and surface reactivity will now have to be taken into account when deciding the regulation of nanoparticles.

The issue of whether entirely new regulations or merely a modification of existing ones would be sufficient for nanoparticles remained unresolved among the participants. The point was made however that there are many types of nanoparticles and that they should not be treated as a general case when deciding regulation. To resolve this issue, further toxicological studies must be performed in order to effectively inform regulators.

The point was also made that regulations may differ between locales e.g. in the USA sun creams are categorised as drugs for regulation, while in the UK they are regulated as cosmetics.

d) Social and ethical issues

A general point was made relating to the publics’ perception and media reporting of nanotechnology. It was felt that in order to conduct a rational debate, a realistic projection of the potential impacts (positive and negative) of nanotechnology must be communicated to the public. It was felt that hyped up reports from some scientists or writers have only served to confuse the publics’ perception of nanotechnology. This has caused confusion between what is fact and what is fiction, and may create unjustified fears. Key messages that the group felt should be put in the public domain were that nanoparticles are not new-very small particles have always been around, and that nanotechnology is multidisciplinary and an enabling technology rather than a new discipline in its own right. The best solution to these public fears was seen as better public understanding at a scientific level through the provision of better science information in school and university undergraduate curricula. The participants believed that initial progress in nanotechnology would likely be by small incremental steps in existing technology and products rather than by a series of dramatic breakthroughs. Similarly, the publics’ perception that nanotechnology is different from other technologies is incorrect. Nanotechnology has however prompted the collaboration of scientists from differing fields of existing technology on a scale that probably has not been seen before.

d) Other factors

A point was raised relating to the publics awareness of commercial research and development into nanotechnology. It was felt that in general, major corporations were becoming less open to engaging the public, and indeed their own peers, in discussion about their nanotechnology research programs. A national strategy which included engaging the public, and encouraging more open discussion between peers in industry was seen as a worthwhile recommendation for the main study.


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The Royal Society 2003
The Royal Academy of Engineering