May 06, 2008 - Concern looms large over small technology
Like other industrialized states, California has long had to deal with a plethora of toxic chemicals. Regulating their use is part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's year-old Green Chemistry Initiative. Now scientists and policymakers are looking at the potential danger from chemicals generated by nanotechnology, a pioneering field that's pushing the boundaries of medicine, chemistry, engineering and other areas.
An April 25 summit at the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) brought together scientists and representatives from government, industry and environmental groups to discuss how to manage the health and environmental risks from exposure to nano-engineered materials while continuing to promote nanotechnology's enormous progress.
Titled "The Future of Nanotechnology: A Legislative Summit," the event was presented by Assemblymember Mike Feuer, D-West Hollywood, in association with CNSI and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.
"We've allowed our society to use things about which we know not so much," said Feuer, who has drafted laws and created programs to improve the environment. "Now we have an opportunity to do right with nanotechnology what we have failed to do properly with regard to chemicals in pervasive use today."
A typical Californian is already exposed to nanoparticles, which can be found in sunscreens and certain apparel. But so far, there are no known diseases linked to nanomaterials, said Andre Nel, director of the UC Lead Campus for Nanotoxicology Research and Training Program.
Analyzing nanomaterials before they are introduced into manufacturing processes is a vital task, Nel said, given that by 2015 the worldwide nanotechnology industry is projected to be worth about $1 trillion.
But who should cover the high cost of such tests is an open question.
Nel suggested that 10% of the federal government's spending on nanotechnology development and research be devoted to safety assessment, as recommended by the National Nanotechnology Initiative as well as UCLA's Department of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS).
An average chemical toxicology test costs $2 million to $3 million, Nel explained, and takes about three years to complete.
Testing could yield other benefits. "What you're going to get back is a lot of new materials to treat diseases because a particle with some danger in one aspect, if carefully controlled, can lead to the treatment of cancer in another area," said Nel, who also runs the Cellular Immunology Activation Laboratory at the Jonsson Cancer Center.
The first step is to decide who should bear the financial burden, Feuer said - industries or the public that will ultimately benefit from improved standards?
The state should establish the basic research infrastructure for testing because nanomaterials are largely produced by small companies incapable of conducting tests independently, said Nel. Later, industry should contribute its fair share, he added.
Nel also proposed targeting the most important materials as a first step, based on short-term testing profiles and patterns.
"We're at a very primitive stage in determining just what those tests are, so we have to start in stages," agreed Leonard H. Rome, interim director of CNSI. Government must develop the necessary R&D infrastructure for the simple reason that it's very difficult to tell private industry what to test for, he noted.
"If we do things right in terms of funding the basic research, the advantages of adopting the methodologies and screening processes will be so abundantly obvious to industry that they will incorporate those into their testing protocols," said Hilary Godwin, chair of EHS.
"But you can't tell industry that you need to create the methodologies," she said, "when there is no legislative mandate to do that and they don't know what those methodologies would be."