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Assessing the Benefits and Risks of Nanotechnology

<p>New approaches to risk assessment related to nanotechnology can help organizations to structure and communicate efforts to protect workers, consumers and the environment.</p>

by Jo Anne Shatkin, Ph.D.

Innovation is inherently risky, and the business risk increases with novel technologies. The ways customers and consumers perceive the benefits and safety of products affects whether companies successfully market new innovations, and whether customers will want to buy them. Producers and users of nanomaterials and nanotechnology for ingredients, manufacturing and related applications face market uncertainty as well as unpredictable regulatory and consumer responses. Businesses can reduce risks, if early efforts are made to identify them. Screening level risk assessments can inform product design, risk management and proactive communications with stakeholders. Clear and proactive communications help to stem the tide of misinformation and empower potential customers to feel confident producers are selling safe products.

The use of nanotechnology, or the manipulation of matter at a scale between 1 and 100 nm for unique properties, can be considered controversial. The potential benefits for ingredient, food, nutrition, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies using materials at the nanoscale take advantage of the enhanced surface properties, the ability to encapsulate additives, controlled release of substances, improved barrier properties or biodegradability of packaging, or provide low-cost sensing and tracking, among developing applications. Nanomaterials and nanotechnologies also provide cosmetic benefits such as transparency, smoother coatings and more brilliant coloring.

But, are there risks using nanoscale materials and technologies in products that people consume? In the age of transparency, consumers, advocates and even some retailers demand to know. The same unique properties that make nanomaterials attractive in products also raise concerns about unintended effects. Adding nano-silver to toothpaste improves health by killing bacteria in the mouth; but, the ultimate pathways and fate of the nano-silver in the body, and in the environment, is unknown.

The state of the science on the health risks of nanotechnology is barely in adolescence.  Despite hundreds of published studies on the potential effects of engineered nanomaterials on health and the environment, current limitations in measurement science mean the study results are often indicators, rather than proof, of adverse effects, and often are contradicted by other studies. Experts around the globe are convening to address the questions about the health risks of nanotechnologies that have been raised in many reports, workshops, news articles and public hearings. There is little agreement about whether nanomaterials pose unique risks, and even less data to debate the topic. Experts have been calling for more research to allow better evaluation of the risks. Regulatory agencies have been considering submissions using nanotechnology on a case-by-case basis.

In this uncertain environment, it remains unclear whether consumers will adopt the products of nanotechnology in foods and nutritional products. In some applications, nanotechnology is coolin music players, for example. But people have a different relationship with products that are health related. Consumer surveys detect a difference in the views of people toward applications of nanotechnology that enter the body, versus those that dontnano inside vs. nano outside (Siegrist et al. Appetite. 2007;49(2):459-66). Not only are the health and environmental risks uncertain, but the perceptions of risks are moveable depending on how people compare nanotechnology to more familiar issues, and people are easily influenced by vocal opponents.

The lack of credible information about which products contain nanomaterials, and the safety testing done on them, has led to speculation and fears that industry is hiding information about potentially negative impacts. To complicate matters, some scientific studies are hyped in the media, with headlines like one in Popular Science this year: China Reports the First Human Nano-Fatalities. Living in the age of instant and constant information makes it difficult to communicate credible information on any hot topic, but especially for controversial and emerging issues that have the potential to go viral. If repeated enough, false perceptions may hold, even if the information is inaccurate.

Assertions that industry is selling unsafe products ought to be met with proactive communications by industries about their efforts to evaluate product safety, protect consumers and the environment, and comply with existing laws. Beyond this, producer responsibility includes early stage product safety assessments that go beyond compliance and consider potential health and environmental impacts across the product lifecycle. New approaches to risk assessment help organizations to structure and communicate these efforts to protect workers, consumers and the environment.

Jo Anne Shatkin, Ph.D., is managing director of CLF Ventures, a nonprofit affiliate of the Conservation Law Foundation, working at the intersection of business, governmental and environmental issues to optimize environmental and economic performance. Dr. Shatkin is a recognized expert in strategic environmental initiatives, health risk assessment, technical communications and environmental aspects of nanotechnology. She recently developed NANO LCRA, an adaptive life cycle framework for identifying and managing the risks of nanomaterials, described in her book, Nanotechnology Health and Environmental Risks, (CRC Press 2008).

Want to learn more about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology? Join Jo Anne Shatkin, Ph.D., for the session Nanotechnology for Ingredients on Nov. 11, 2009, at SupplySide West. Get more details at .

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