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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > ONAMI > Sowing Nanophobia to Reap Regulation?

Skip Rung
President and Executive Director

With the recent publication of a particular MWCNTs-in-mice experiment, and pundits' various comments thereupon, we're back where we always are on the "unknown risks" of nanotechnology. Do we embrace innovation or fear it? Do we seek to build communities and business networks based on knowledge and trust, or do we imagine that a comprehensive scheme of prohibitions and penalties will lead to better outcomes? The answer is by no means an anarchical free-for-all (we're way past that), but rather collaborative and interdisciplinary mechanisms for reducing uncertainty that are as innovative and forward-looking as nanotechnology itself.

July 1st, 2008

Sowing Nanophobia to Reap Regulation?

I have to admit they had me going. An avalanche of letters to the editor from "neighbors", and newspaper polls predicting either narrow defeat or passage on the eve of Election Day 2002, had me believing that Oregon might actually plunge headlong into a roll-our-own comprehensive single payer healthcare regime imposing a new 3.9% personal income tax plus a special purpose 9.5% payroll tax. What employer in its right mind would stick around for this (or continue to employ anyone here), I wondered? I need not have worried. This very blue state sensibly defeated Proposition 23 by a margin of 79% to 21%. Of course, measure proponents blamed last-minute spending by insurance companies for this "failure", but I don't recall any Harry & Louise campaign.

I am feeling similarly about recent alarmism (e.g. making the most of the "asbestos" study of MWCNT injections into mice) regarding nanomaterials risks, and accompanying incitement to local nanotechnology-specific regulation (since federal regulatory agencies wisely demur at this juncture) based on the "precautionary (preclusionary?) principle" on the part of NGOs that evidently believe paternalistic government control now is the only way to deal with an "urgent" situation brought on by the "burgeoning" nanotechnology industry. This urgent need is asserted on the basis of highly questionable analogies and in the absence of evidence or report that anyone or any ecosystem has yet been harmed by nanomaterials, even less reason to think the environmental/industrial/consumer status quo is safer than will be the case with nanotechnology innovations, and growing evidence that filters and personal protective equipment (PPE) are effective at removing airborne particulates in the nano scale (some good news here, where are the headlines?)

What about reaching for the "no nano" button? To the disappointment of some, no doubt, there is also no evidence of consumers rejecting iPods, laptops, sunscreen lotions, antimicrobial coatings or other products. There is, however, evidence that consumers are reaching for the "green" button (more on this later). The fundamental point is that Americans, even when in a 'foul' mood, remain innovative and progressive at heart, and not inclined to turn all their cares (along with their room for maneuver) over to the government. Boston and Silicon Valley didn't become technology and innovation leaders by waiting, in supine self-doubt, for permission and direction on every detail from an all-knowing government. The Boston Tea Party and the Stanford freshman class of 1999 streaking across the Golden Gate Bridge are more like it.

Recent reports (making frequent use of the verb "might") make a number of claims about what is good for industry and innovation that I find very doubtful. We are told that local regulation and precautionary behavior are good for nanotechnology companies, and that they will welcome it in order to avoid a consumer backlash. All new developments subject to a community vote? This is not much of an exaggeration of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition position. I know many nanotechnology materials and manufacturing technology entrepreneurs, and I am certain that not one of them thinks their college town city council knows more about materials safety than they do, and not one is excited about spending time on intrusive questionnaires or wants to use precious cash to hire expensive consultants to perform facility audits. They are perfectly responsible and rational about the importance of occupational safety and capable of asking for help, e.g. from NIOSH, when they need it . Big companies can afford (or avoid, e.g. by off-shoring manufacturing and procurement) burdensome and costly bureaucratic compliance, but the small company innovators of our future cannot.

There simply is no completely risk-free position.

OK, then, what do I think the data and the market are really telling us?

First, the toxicological data (scattered, often conflicting, and generally not conducive to sweeping conclusions) is telling us that understanding nanomaterial-biological system interactions (for both risk quantification and application development) is an enormously complex task, and that a thorough understanding will take many years to emerge - but only if an organized approach is chosen, funded and steadfastly pursued. It seems we all agree on this, and the problem has been well-framed by the NNI, NanoHealth Enterprise and other efforts. So let's get going.

(And yes, it's that time of year again. The 2008 Micro Nano Breakthrough Conference in Vancouver, Washington will, among many other things, have the best technical sessions you are going to find on the science of nanotechnology EHS and the practice of green nanotechnology. I hope you'll join us. )

Another, perhaps obvious and yet profound, thing it is telling us is that our concept of what a "unique substance" is, or even the difference between a "substance" and an "article" - both distinctions central to TSCA - are changing dramatically. It used to be an interesting question whether a new ionic substitution for a food dye (e.g. for an inkjet ink) constituted a new substance not on the TSCA inventory. But that is child's play compared to the nearly infinite mix and match possibilities presented by just metal nanoparticles of many different size ranges, shapes, and ligand attachments. And if it becomes possible to construct a functional component atom-by-atom (and some of the targeted cancer drug delivery concepts are starting to sound like this), are we talking about a substance or a device? I am certainly no expert on TSCA or the writing of regulations in general, but I think I can confidently predict that a "specify, inventory and test everything to prove safety" approach covering all of materials science innovation simply can't fly. A "meta" approach based on fundamental understanding - and also on trust - is the only way forward.

U.S. consumers and "the public" may express or acknowledge concern (including when misled to associate nanotechnology safety with invasion of privacy by small cameras) but they will not ultimately back an approach based on fear or pessimism. They will prefer a positive approach (e.g. green products and systems of production), and base their decisions on trusted sources of information - especially knowledgeable friend networks. This creates lots of opportunity, including price premiums, for products (e.g. hybrid vehicles) and companies that want to do the right thing, from sustainable forest practices for lumber to the use of green chemistry to improve the efficiency and reduce the impact of materials manufacturing.

On the innovation and job creation front, it is undeniably true that companies and investors need certainty and predictability. Thus clear rules may be better than no rules, but the words of cleantech investor Vinod Khosla about his home state (SF Chronicle, 5/11/08) should give local rulemakers pause:

"Today, the bureaucracy in California for permitting is so large that whenever we can, our companies for production move out of state. They'd rather be in Nevada, they'd rather be in Arizona, they'd rather be in Florida, in Georgia - every place except California."

If California's new trend is to place unreasonable hurdles in the way of R&D, those "best jobs" will seek a more hospitable location as well. There are plenty of communities (with names like Hillsboro, Gresham, Albany, Millersburg, Springfield, Prineville, Grants Pass) that still do, and are not afraid of, materials manufacturing and R&D.

So we're back where we always are on these matters. Do we embrace innovation or fear it? Do we seek to build communities and business networks based on knowledge and trust, or do we imagine that a comprehensive scheme of prohibitions and penalties will lead to better outcomes? The answer is by no means an anarchical free-for-all (we're way past that), but rather collaborative and interdisciplinary mechanisms for reducing uncertainty that are as innovative and forward-looking as nanotechnology itself.

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