Protecting workers and the environment: An environmental NGO's perspective on nanotechnology
Balbus, John M.
Journal of Nanoparticle Research
Vol. 9, Num. 1
"With commercial development of nanotechnology outpacing the development of a rigorous,com- prehensive scientific understanding of the behavior of nanomaterials in biological systems and the potential for human exposures," say Balbus and Florini, "there is a need to fill gaps in the scienti c understanding of potential risks and to develop and implement interim voluntary measures to identify and mitigate those risks."
One reason for concern is the very regularity of engineered superfine particles. "Since shape and size play a large role in determining access to different compart- ments within the body or even within individual cells,this may mean that a given mass of nanoparticles could consist of a much higher concentration of particles of a specific size and shape. Greater delivery of nanoparticles to specific compartments or cellular organelles could result in greater toxicity compared to more heterogeneous combustion particles. On the other hand,the control over size and shape may also allow re-engineering of nanoparticles to avoid toxicity but still allow function." Durability as well as toxicity are issued for nanoparticles, in particular buckyballs and single walled carbon nanotubes. Balbus and Florini suggest that nanotechnology must of necessity change regulatory frameworks. "First,in most current regulatory programs,standards (and exemptions from them)are based on mass and mass concentration. Because of their high surface-area-to-mass ratios and enhanced surface activity, some nanomaterials are likely to prove potent at far lower concentration levels than those envisioned when threshold standards were initially set. Second,regulators often rely on structure-activity models to extrapolate and predict at least some types of toxicity for new conventional materials. Too little is currently known about nanomaterials to enable such extrapolation."
Four kinds of applicable standards used by OSHA for ensuring worker safety are reviewed, and are found wanting. The draft white paper on nanotechnology issued by the EPA in 2005 lacks specificity as regards the mechanism of regulatory assessments.
In reponse to these uncertainties and existing limitations, Balbus and Florini say "we believe two distinct kinds of initiatives are needed: first, a major increase in the federal investment in nanomaterial risk research; second, rapid development and implementation of voluntary standards of care pending development of adequate regulatory safeguards in the longer term."