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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > ONAMI > Nano Week in Seattle - Tuesday June 9, NHSF Summary

Skip Rung
President and Executive Director

The Nanotechnology Health and Safety Forum made a strong finish - a summary of conclusions follows. ISO TC 229 Joint Working Group I appears to have solved the naming issue related to nano-objects and nanostructured materials.

June 11th, 2009

Nano Week in Seattle - Tuesday June 9, NHSF Summary

The Nanotechnology Health and Safety Forum ran for just 24 hours (including a riveting evening talk by Dr. Leroy Hood on the connections between nanotechnology and medicine based on systems biology) and I think it was one of the best events we have ever been part of (which I'm taking as a challenge for our MNBC 2009 in September: )

I was asked to summarize highlights of what was learned and where it appears we are headed in the next 10 years. Here's what I said:

Where Things Stand

1. It is clear that some useful and important nanomaterials will be hazardous and others will not. It is too early to make general conclusions or predictions.
2. We are getting better at doing good experiments, and the nanomaterial-biological system interaction science we are learning is both fascinating and beautiful. But there is still too much uncertainty, variability and lack of standards (why we're in Seattle this week).
3. The category "nanomaterials" is not proving to be useful for risk assessment and regulatory development. More useful distinctions appear to be things like cell uptake/clearance mechanisms and "unique structures or molecular arrangements" compared to conventional chemical substances.
4. I think we may be (as a result of investments over the last few years) in a transitional moment between more of the same meetings where we list the same problems and needs over and over again - and hitting our stride with experimental productivity and findings of the sort we need. In the early/mid-80s, after much investment in PCs, the jury was still out as to whether they were a net benefit as opposed to status symbols on executive desks. Bill Gates was out giving visionary speeches about all the wonderful things PCs and networks would do for us and, sure enough, 10-15 years later they absolutely were - for all of us, day in and day out.
5. There are different (e.g. between Europe and the US) views on whether some version of the "precautionary principle" should be followed, but it seems clear to all, in the absence of reliable dosimetry, that workplace exposure to loose nanomaterials should be carefully managed - as indeed good companies have been doing.
6. Good science, care for employees and common sense will help researchers and business people have productive working relationships with the insurance and legal industries (BTW, we think NHSF was the first meeting to fully integrate an insurance/legal risk mitigation session into a 'technical' meeting - and it worked out wonderfully).

What We Can Look Forward to in 10 Years

1. Dramatic scientific progress, significantly enabled by the emergence of high quality reference materials (e.g. from NIST), highly productive physico-chemical and biological assays, well-functioning round-robin multi-laboratory testing protocols and collaborative/federated informatics.
2. We will get much better at communicating scientific and risk/benefits information to supporting professions and the public (it's a long way from geek speak to Court TV). Just as public risk perception can be well described on the axes of known-unknown and lethal-nonlethal, it appears to me that there may be analogous ways to portray evaluation of benefits. It is interesting (and investors know it) that almost no one dislikes the idea of nano-medicine, and risk-related objections are rarely raised.
3. Litigation regarding alleged harm from nanomaterials will come. Plaintiff's attorneys who got rich off asbestos and tobacco are looking for the next big thing, too.
4. Business preparedness for excellent operations and litigation prevention (a lot of the same actions) will be key: green nanotechnology methods (minimize hazard and waste), process control (the foundation for all high tech manufacturing), thorough documentation, employee care and proactive engagement with professional networks and regulatory bodies.

Action Items for the Interested and Diligent

1. Get involved in ISO/ANSI by offering your time and expertise - and using them to influence good outcomes.
2. Read and understand the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Amendments Act (HR 554):
(and if you do this carefully, you'll want to read the existing law as well: )
3. Participate in and contribute to the nanoEHS scientific and professional community in order that we can set and achieve high expectations for science and data quality as well as rapid collaborative learning.

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