Commercializing nanotechnology, Part Two: Managing the perceptual risks of nanotoxicity

by Phil LoPiccolo, Editor-in-Chief

Before introducing products built with novel nanomaterials, companies clearly need to identify the real environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks they may pose (see “Managing the risks of nanotoxicity”, WaferNews, V13n38, Nov. 14, 2006). But it is also essential to commercial success for companies to ensure that the public does not develop misconceptions about nanotechnology based on perceived risks, according to Lux Research senior analyst Michael Holman, speaking at the Lux Executive Summit on Commercializing Nanotechnology held last month in Cambridge, MA.

The public is still largely an open book on nanotoxicity, as firm opinions about nanotechnology have not yet been established, said Holman. “However, there’s a real possibility that consumers could come to see nanotechnology broadly as something that’s dangerous or harmful, regardless of what the actual risk profile is of any particular material or application,” he said, adding that activist groups are increasingly raising concerns.

To demonstrate how perceptual risks can quickly derail new nanomaterial-enabled products, Holman pointed to the media coverage of recent research suggesting that carbon-60 fullerenes — like those used in products such as anti-aging formulations because of their antioxidant properties — caused cellular damage in the brains of fish exposed to the molecules. Although subsequent studies claimed that a solvent used in the experiment was responsible for the cell damage, several consumer groups petitioned the FDA to ban the use of nanomaterials in cosmetics.

To effectively manage the perceived risks of nanotoxicity, it’s important for companies to release as much data as possible about their experiments, without compromising confidential business information, said Holman. He pointed to a long history of companies that have faced questions regarding the health effects of products — e.g., cigarettes, Teflon, and silicon breast implants — and explained that public reaction has always been worse when the company involved is seen as hiding something. “No one is committing crimes with nanoparticles,” he said, but added that nevertheless, “As in politics, it’s not the crime — it’s the cover-up.”

Unfortunately, companies are still largely in cover-up mode today, said Holman. In fact, many of the nanotech companies he visited this year explained that their approach to managing perceived risks was simply to avoid the subject. “You won’t hear us talking about nanotech or advertising it in any way,” one corporate EHS manager told him. “That’s our strategy for dealing with potential negative publicity.”

Other companies are taking a more proactive approach. On its corporate Web site, BASF spells out the company’s code of conduct on nanotechnology, offers background information on nanoparticle toxicity, and provides links to research studies conducted by its scientists on the health effects of the nanomaterials they are using. The company also includes information on the health and environmental benefits that nanotech can bring, by replacing more toxic alternatives and reducing energy needs.

“It’s clear from the intense scrutiny that EHS issues have received from the media and consumer groups that companies will have to address them squarely,” Holman said. Sweeping them under the rug, he added, “will leave the field vulnerable to consumer and regulatory backlash.”

Key to managing perceptual risk is to gain early approval of nanomaterials from regulatory agencies. Steps that could be taken in the early stages of product development include reviewing prior regulatory actions of similar materials, while later steps entail reaching out to regulatory agencies for feedback about the tests and data that would, and would not, be required to demonstrate a material’s safety, Holman explained. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has access to proprietary data on a variety of nanomaterials, he said, so clearly this sort of feedback makes for a smoother regulatory path.

Finally, one of the most effective — and often overlooked — strategies is to communicate the EHS benefits that nanotech products offer, Holman said. Greater use of solar cells that rely on fullerenes for efficiency improvements, for example, could lead to significant reductions in emissions from fossil fuels. “The fact that nanotech innovation can help address important health and environment problems needs to be a part of the discussion about nanotech EHS,” he stressed. “The public deserves accurate information about the risks, but also about the benefits.” — P.L.


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