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Is-novelty-in-nanomaterials-overrated-when-it-comes-to-risk

Novelty and nanotechnology are deeply intertwined. The search for nanostructure-enabled materials has driven research funding in nanotechnology for well over a decade now; the exploitation of novel properties has underpinned the commercialization of nanomaterials; and concerns over potential risks has stimulated widespread studies into what makes these materials harmful. Yet ‘novelty’ is an ephemeral quality, and despite its close association with nanotechnology, it may be an unreliable guide to ensuring the long-term safety of materials that emerge from the field. If this is the case, do we need to find alternative approaches to developing advanced materials and products that are safe by design?

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First published in Nature Nanotechnology, 5 March 2014.  Nature Nanotechnology 9, 159–160 (2014) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.43 [Link] Ten years after the publication of an influential report on the uncertainties in nanoscale science and engineering, are we in danger of creating a new metaphorical grey goo? In 2004, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (RS-RAE) in the UK published the report Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties [1]. At the time it was widely speculated that the report arose from concerns expressed by Prince Charles over the possibility that nanotechnology could lead to a ‘grey goo’ scenario where self-replicating ‘nanobots’ destroy life as we know it [2]. Outlandish as the alleged motivation was (and Prince Charles was quick to downplay reports of his grey goo concerns [3]), the resulting report set the pace for the next decade of global research into the potential impacts of nanotechnology — and how to avoid them. Around the time the report was commissioned, concerns over the potential unanticipated consequences of nanotechnology were beginning to gain wider traction [4]. Essays like Bill Joy’s ‘Why the future doesn’t need us’ [5] were raising concerns in the public domain, and professional interest in possible human health and environmental impacts of nanoscale science and engineering had been growing steadily for the previous decade. As far back as 1992, for example, the journal Nature published a Correspondence raising the issue of possible asbestos-like behaviour of carbon nanotubes [6] — less than a year after Sumio Iijima published his seminal work on the structures [7]. And during the 1990s, particle toxicologists began revealing increasingly unusual biological interactions associated with certain nanoscale particles [8]. During this period, the US and other countries were beginning to invest heavily in nanoscale science and engineering as an engine of economic growth [9]. Alert to a potential public backlash against the

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Pick up a jar of chili powder, and the chances are it will contain a small amount of fumed silica – an engineered nanomaterial that’s been around for over half a century.  The material – which is formed from microscopically small particles of amorphous silicon dioxide – has long been considered to be non-toxic. Amorphous silica is widely used as a flow agent in food powders – it’s what stops chili powder clumping together and sticking in the jar – and the Food and Drug Administration allows up to 2% by weight in food products.  Yet recent research is beginning to question assumptions over the material’s safety. In this month’s edition of the journal Nature Nanotechnology, I examine previous reviews of fumed silica safety, alongside two recent studies that suggest it may not be as benign as originally thought. Fumed silica may be more toxic than thought To cut a long story short, recent research suggests that there are toxic chemical groups that form on the surface of fumed silica during production, and that high exposure to sensitive parts of the body could be harmful.  However, the weight of evidence from cell and animal studies suggests that ingesting small amounts of fumed silica is not harmful. That’s the good news.  But in many ways, this is just the backstory to a more challenging issue raised in the article – when surprising new insights emerge on possible material health risks, where does the responsibility lie for ensuring that new research is conducted on material safety, without this research influencing consumers and regulators before there is plausible justification for action? Published research and public discourse Newly published research is becoming increasingly influential in public discourse – academic institutions regularly publicize and push papers through press releases; peer review publications are becoming easier for anyone to access; and

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Chemistry World posted a good article yesterday on nanotech regulation in Europe (Europe mulls best way to handle nanotech by Andrew Williams).  I have a couple of quotes in the piece, along with Risk Science Center colleague Diana Bowman).  These are taken from a longer set of responses to questions from Williams, which I thought it might be worth posting here (edited slightly so that they make more sense grammatically!) What are currently the main EU nanomaterial regulations? What are the key elements of these regulations? What is REACH’s (Registration Evaluation Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals regulations) stance as a pan-national regulation on nanomaterials – and is it moving towards the creation of a register? REACH has deep implications to how chemical substances are assessed and regulated across the European Union, and is impacting on any company either wanting to trade with member states, or manufacture within these states (and so the reach – if you’ll forgive the pun – goes well beyond the EU). Two associated issues here are what constitutes a nanomaterial, and whether the explicit differentiation of nano- and non-nanoscale materials make sense within the context of REACH. The EC Joint Research Council recently published a massive 280+ page document evaluating the previously released definition of nano materials for regulatory purposes – and this is just part one of the definition review process! This document provides a deep and scientifically rigorous assessment of considerations relevant to a definition for regulatory purposes, but is still driven by the assumption that there is something unique about engineered nanomaterial risks that requires them to be distinguished from other materials. I continue to argue that some emerging materials will lead to unanticipated health challenges, but that fixating on the nanoscale potentially blinkers a larger conversation about advanced material safety (latest piece on this).  

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The European Commission had just adopted a “cross-cutting designation of nanomaterials to be used for all regulatory purposes” (link). The definition builds on a draft definition released last year, but includes a number of substantial changes to this. Here’s the full text of the definition:

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I‘ve just posted a piece over on the Risk Science Blog on regulatory definitions of engineered nanomaterials.  What may come as a surprise to many readers given my comments over the years is the title – “Why we don’t need a regulatory definition for nanomaterials”!  Have I flipped, lost my senses, or what? As you might guess, I still think that engineered nanomaterials present a huge regulatory challenge – both from the perspective of avoiding unnecessary health impacts, and providing manufacturers with clear, rational rules for their safe use.  But I also have this odd idea that regulations should at the minimum be built on evidence if the resulting rules and guidelines are to have any relevance and traction. Sadly, it now looks like we are heading toward a situation where the definitions of nanomaterials underpinning regulations will themselves be based on policy, not science. This scares the life out of me, because it ends up taking evidence off the table when it comes to oversight, and replacing it with assumptions and speculation on what people think is relevant, rather than what actually is – not good for safety, and certainly not good for business. But you can read more about why I’m getting worried about a regulatory definition for nanomaterials over at the Risk Science Blog.

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2020 Science is the creation of Andrew Maynard - a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. Andrew spends his time obsessing over effective science communication; the responsible development and use of emerging technologies; and how understanding risk can help inform smart decisions.  

As well as writing a regular column for the journal Nature Nanotechnology, He posts regularly here at "2020 Science", and on Twitter as @2020science.  He also produces short, entertaining, and (hopefully) informative videos on understanding health risks on his YouTube channel Risk Bites

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