INSIGHT: Caring about nanotechnology

17 June 2009 17:14  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

LONDON (ICIS news)--It’s all about building trust: trust in the science and trust in the regulatory environment that ultimately protects citizens from the excesses that companies might be prone to.

Two events this week have highlighted the challenges that emerging nanotechnology-based businesses present to companies, regulators and, possibly, investors in those companies.

The results of Germany’s three-year NanoCare project, sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, are being presented in Berlin.

Industry largely believes that the initiative, which has looked at the potential impact of nanomaterials on health and the environment, has been a success.

“The results obtained by NanoCare so far indicate that no additional safety measures are required for the newly researched materials, compared to the already highly researched comparative materials, for which a broader database exists,” said the head of innovation management in Evonik’s chemistry business, Peter Nagler, on Tuesday.

Nagler was talking about specific materials but his company believes that NanoCare has significantly broadened knowledge about evaluating nanomaterials.

Methods have been developed to measure nanoparticles in the workplace.

The project has helped standardise international testing and data provided to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to help improve internationally recognised test strategies.

Nanotechnology, the science of the very small, is helping companies produce novel materials and products of all sorts with exceptional properties.

Analytical techniques based on nanotechnology are opening up new avenues for testing and research in materials and medicine.

Vast sums are being poured into nanotechnology research by countries and companies keen to steal a march on global competitors producing products as diverse as advanced materials, food supplements, biocides and sunscreens.

At the sub-micron scale the physical properties of materials are very different. And there is growing concern with the physiological affects of nanomaterials.

Evonik has considerable experience in materials production and handling and has lent that knowledge to the NanoCare project, which has involved 15 companies, universities and research centres.

The company provided its well researched “comparative” materials titanium oxide and carbon black, as well as new nanomaterials such as zirconium oxide, cerium oxide, mixed oxides, and various new surface-modified particles.

Evonik’s analytical services centre, AQura, provided NanoCare with expertise in the chemical-physical characterisation of particles and in measuring nanoparticles in the workplace.

And the company opened its factory gates to independent specialists who wanted to take measurements in the workplace.

For Evonik, nanotechnology research has provided new battery membranes and cost-effective adhesives. But Nagel recognises public concern over nanomaterials that may have been used for years in some products but are coming under closer scrutiny.

As NanoCare reached a conclusion an investor group in the US warned that nanotechnology is regarded by some as having the potential to create a liability scenario on par with asbestos.

Asbestos litigation is reckoned to have cost insurers around $200bn. Studies show that by 2002 asbestos personal injury claim payouts had reached $70bn and bankrupted 61 companies.

The US-based Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN) highlighted the potential link between nanotech materials and adverse health impacts.  

A report from the organisation suggested that “regulatory flaws encourage companies to conceal damaging scientific findings from investors, fail to disclose estimates of the range of potential liabilities, and place undue reliance on litigators”.

It wants to see the US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) improve disclosures made to investors that would help them estimate the possible liabilities that might accrue from products containing nanomaterials.

“Investors should be better apprised by companies of the state of the science, including the important health impact questions that have not yet been answered,” it says.

The trouble is that the controversy surrounding nanotechnology is leading companies to keep quiet on which of their products contain nanomaterials.

Both the consumer, and, as the IEHN would have it, the investor, are being kept in the dark.

Chemicals producers do not stand aloof from this trend but have the expertise to bring informed commentary to the debate.

And they owe it to their employees and their customers to advance the science and our understanding of the potential health impacts of the materials they produce.

Nagler is convinced that products based on nanotechnology will find wider use only if the industry seriously considers the social discourse on opportunity and risk and communicates the new technology and its benefits to a broad public, Evonik says.

“We have committed ourselves to applying nanotechnology responsibly, and this is why we’re taking part in NanoCare,” he adds.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect

By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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