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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > ONAMI > Thinking Critically about Nanotechnology EHS Concerns

Skip Rung
President and Executive Director

To the extent there are negative public perceptions about nanotechnology safety, they are not based on facts and data (perceptions often aren't) and are similarly unlikely to be altered by facts and data. Critical thinking by practitioners and potential regulators of nanotechnology (nanomaterials development and application, in large part) should result in both EHS research with realistic expectations and prudent day-to-day decision making as the promise and benefits of molecular-precision materials science unfold.

October 30th, 2006

Thinking Critically about Nanotechnology EHS Concerns

In view the subject of this column, it may be prudent to mention at the outset that it is simply the opinion of the author (who is always happy to have his judgment improved by a better argument), and not necessarily that of the Board of Directors nor any partner or sponsor of ONAMI.

With the exception of a few parties which make no secret of their skepticism of technology, big business, etc. and who often espouse a draconian and impractical version of the "precautionary principle" (the one I am thinking of is "impose a moratorium on xxx products until they are proven safe", which effectively means "do nothing the first time"), it seems that virtually all the public voices weighing in on the issue of nanotechnology safety express genuine concern that the undoubted benefits (energy, medicine, environment, etc…) of nanotechnology not be derailed or delayed by an unfortunate uprising of negative public perception along the lines of GM food rejection in Europe (which most now recognize for the ill-founded hysteria it is, not to mention the more lethal effects of European agricultural trade recalcitrance on poor Africans). The proposed remedy for this diffuse concern is a large increase in federal research funding specifically for nanomaterials safety/toxicology research in order to build a solid fact base.

But I wonder. Perceptions and attitudes usually have to do with a lot more than facts, and certainly there have not been a great many public facts to work with in the present case. So the current attitudes must have come from somewhere else. My hypothesis is that they are rooted in the speculative and futuristic expectations for nanotechnology popularized by Eric Drexler, of which an imagined dark side was later sensationalized in the mass media by Michael Crichton (Prey) and discussed by celebrity entrepreneur-engineers turned public philosophers. Bill Joy's famous 2000 Wired article "The Future Doesn't Need us" quoted Drexler on the possibility - or even likelihood - of a nanotechnology replacement of bio-based photosynthesis replicating (via "replicating assemblers") and "reduc[ing] the biosphere to dust within a few days". Joy then enlightened his hoi polloi readership that "among the cognoscenti this threat has become known as the ‘grey goo problem'".

Six years later, there are still no autonomous replicating assemblers in sight and scientists and nanotechnology organizations of all types have largely downplayed or disavowed such wild scenarios as impossible or at least very far off. Bill Joy is now a venture capital partner with one stated interest in business plans based on carbon nanotubes - and he suggests leaving risk assessment/valuation to the private insurance markets. Practical nanotechnology has grown up quite a bit and is starting to look like an advanced applied materials science business, but the public has been left with a strong impression that there is surely something to be seriously worried about. So they worry about nanotechnology (i.e. nanomaterials) in cosmetics, clothing, sporting goods, workplaces and industrial waste streams. Since management of hazardous materials and occupational health practices have come a long way (particularly in the chemical and semiconductor industries - the same two that will do the most in nanotechnology) since the emergence of "high technology", it is fair to ask: What exactly is new here, and what resemblance does it bear to the scenarios that got everyone all excited in the first place?

It is not especially easy to put one's finger on all-new, specific categories of risk. Hazardous materials in industrial and consumer settings are not new. Human exposure to ultrafine (nano-scale) particulates is not new. Perhaps the best way to describe what is new in the next decade or so is growing volumes (though still small by materials industry standards) of engineered (as opposed to naturally occurring or industrially incidental) nanoparticles that will probably result in increased exposure risk, first and foremost in workplace settings. It is important to understand such things as disaggregation vs. agglomeration (most often, nanomaterials tend to clump together rather than remain ultrafine) and every transport mechanism between material release and actual delivered dosage to organs of interest, and in the meantime follow conservative protocols (as I believe is increasingly done) for personnel exposure prevention.

But does anyone else think it may be over-anticipating just a bit to worry about nanomaterial constituents of end-of-life products (e.g. car mouldings) being recycled into roadbed asphalt, then stirred up by car and truck tires to produce a new inhalation risk? (I am here unable to resist a little reminiscing about my time in the semiconductor industry beginning thirty years ago, when we did take great precautions about worker exposure to toxic gases, corrosive acids and various carcinogens - but also took a benign and bemused view of employee break areas where tobacco smoke and acetone nail polish remover fumes conspired to make the environment outside the cleanroom much less safe.)

Anyway, the public perception situation is what it is, so what do I recommend? By all means we should do the materials toxicology research, but realize that the general subject of nanomaterials is so broad/open-ended and complex that definitive and systematic answers are going to take a long time to emerge. Further, merely spending more money on nanotechnology EHS research is not enough. The work must be done correctly - which will probably not look like administering poorly understood doses of unknown/uncontrolled materials to laboratory rats. Systematically determining -with carefully developed experimental platforms - the structure-function relationships (both for desired functionality and undesired toxicity) of carefully prepared and thoroughly characterized materials, and discovering the most environmentally benign and economically efficient fabrication processes for nanomaterials and structures is our preferred approach. Interested readers can learn more about the ONAMI Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing Initiative at

But since reams of good data now or later are unlikely to have much effect on by-now settled perceptions, those remain a separate problem, and one that may not be solvable by direct action. If we want the benefits of nanotechnology, we will need to gather our courage and common sense to make sensible day-by-day decisions, especially with regard to material handling and protective equipment in the workplace.

I'd welcome your views on this. Feel free to send them to

Robert D. "Skip" Rung
President and Executive Director
Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI)

©2006 Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute

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