There’s a bit of a brouhaha over nanotechnology safety brewing over at AOL Online.  A few weeks ago, investigative reporter Andrew Schneider posted a series of articles questioning both the safety of nanotechnology-enabled products entering the market, and the US government’s response to the emerging challenge.  Today, Clayton Teague – Director of the US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office – hit back with an opinion piece calling Schneider to task…

I mention this because earlier today, Andrew Schneider posted a new article in his nanotechnology series that examined a recent report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology – a report which Teague describes in his op-ed as “Perhaps the best and most impartial review of the nation’s efforts in the realm of nanotechnology safety and oversight.” In this new piece, Schneider quotes me on yet another document that is germane to this debate.

Confused yet?  Let me try and explain.

When Schneider’s original series – “The Nanotech Gamble: Bold Science.  Big Money. Growing Risks” – came out, the feds were understandably upset; they didn’t fare too well in the assessment, and felt that they – not to mention the science – were a little hard done by.  So they set to work on developing a strategy to counter the pieces.

As it happens, the US National Nanotechnology Initiative was due to hold a public workshop on nanotechnology risk and ethical issues a few days after the AOL series was published.  At this meeting were a number of invited speakers and guests from academia, business and elsewhere – a perfect venue for public questions about nanotechnology-related risks, but also a potential opportunity to put some misunderstandings and misconceptions to bed.

I’m not privy to the events between the publication of the AOL pieces and the so-called Capstone meeting, but I do know that they resulted in some (not all) of the invited speakers and guests being issued with “response points” – just in case they were asked some tricky questions.

These response points were circulated widely, and as a result copies of them landed in my email box – this wasn’t a restricted document.  I mention this because Andrew Schneider’s latest piece not only refers to them, but also quotes my response to reading them (I’m not going to cite myself – you can read what I had to say here).

However, as their existence is now out in the open, I thought it only fair that I let others see what Schneider was referring to:

AOL Story about Nanotech – Some Response Points

  • AOL Web site is running a three-day series on nanotechnology by a reporter who has spent months reporting the story, including interviews with many agency scientists.
  • Takes an alarmist perspective: Despite the lack of evidence that anyone has ever been harmed by an engineered nano product, it presumes that nanotechnology (wrongly construed to be a singular entity) is inherently dangerous until proven safe, ignoring reality that nanotech encompasses an enormous range of materials and products whose risk—if any—depends on where and how they are made and used.
  • Uses irrelevant examples, for example: Cites a study finding DNA damage in mice fed nano-TiO2 (used in paint and sunscreens), but no studies have shown a convincing link between this widely used chemical and human illness and the story does not mention (but we have checked and learned) that exposures in the study were more than 10 times those allowed in food by FDA regs.
  • Claims that “most federal agencies “are doing little to nothing to ensure public safety” and are “ignoring warning signs.” Truth is the U.S. is the global leader in research into nanotech’s potential environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks.
    • Between FY 2005 and FY 2009 the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) will have invested $254 million in research whose primary function is to understand EHS issues—more than all other countries in the world combined. And that does not count the large amounts of research that contribute to health and safety knowledge indirectly, such as basic research on how to measure the stuff in the first place.
    • Federal research dedicated to nano-related EHS research has grown substantially from $34.8 million in FY 2005 to $74.5 million in FY 2009 and an estimated $91.6 million for FY 2010. The FY 2011 request is a record $116.9 million.
  • Risk must be balanced against benefits, and the essentially theoretical risk that has so far been identified should be balanced against the benefits in terms of sophisticated products and economic growth and jobs created by this expanding industry.
  • Just yesterday (Thurs) PCAST released its report on the National Nanotechnology Initiative—the the 10-year-old, multiagency initiative that has supported this fledgling science of the extremely small to the tune of about $12 billion over the past decade—finding that the U.S. is the global leader in nanotech by any number of measures (including patent filings, scientific journal citations, and investments in R&D).  This is a young and promising industry we can still own as a Nation, so we should not let fear overtake common sense, even as safety studies and regulatory updates continue.

(Circulated by the federal government to some external guests and speakers at the March 30-31 NNI Capstone meeting on March 26)

Great fodder for a case study on how a government initiative investing in a new technology responds to public criticism, don’t you think?

Andrew Maynard