INSIGHT:Nanotech uncertainty calls for transparent dialogue

26 October 2009 18:17  [Source: ICIS news]

By John Baker

PRAGUE (ICIS news)--Use of nanotechnology is certainly beginning to build up a head of steam. Estimates put the current number of applications in Europe at just over the 1,000 mark.

Industrial interest is based largely around 14 main classes of nanomaterials, notably carbon black, titanium dioxide, synthetic amorphous silica and metal oxides such as alumina and ceria.

Applications cover a very wide spectrum, from consumer products, food and healthcare, to construction materials, energy production and efficiency, automotive and aerospace components, and computing.

By 2014, it is suggested that nanomaterials could be found in 15% of manufactured products, with 10m jobs worldwide involved in nanomaterial manufacturing.

But the chemical industry is well aware that its vigorous, innovative drive may well be stymied if the public’s concerns over potential risks outweigh their appreciation of the benefits. Regulators are already concerned over workplace exposures and potential public health effects of products containing nanomaterials.

Speaking at the annual Cefic Responsible Care meeting in Prague, the Czech Republic, last week, Laurent Bontoux of the European Commission’s directorate-general for health and consumers stressed that there is still a long way to go in developing risk-assessment methods for the wide range of nanomaterials and their applications.

“There is no generally applicable paradigm for nanomaterial hazard identification,” he explained, adding that “the Commission is therefore recommending a case-by-case approach”, using substance-specific data.

There is still a need for better definitions of what constitutes a nanomaterial and how these can be characterised in detail.

Current thinking at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has identified no fewer than 17 characteristics that are possibly relevant to nanoparticle toxicity, including particle size, shape and distribution, specific surface area, surface reactivity and composition, and so on.

And there is a huge need for more new data and data sharing, Bontoux said.

“We have made significant progress on risk assessment of nanomaterials over the past five years… [and now] know-how to formulate the questions. [But] there are strong needs for methodology and a need to share databases and information,” he said.

Issues that need addressing include size thresholds, production levels, dose metrics and dose responses, and functionality of surfaces, he added.

The chemical producers with a stake in the new technology need to engage positively with this task. And, moreover, they need to communicate effectively and transparently with stakeholders and the public to build confidence in the new technology. It must at all costs avoid a repeat of the scares around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food in Europe.

To do this requires balanced communication, suggested Professor Lynne Frewer of the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands. Impact assessments of new technologies are increasingly focusing on both the risks and benefits, and both sides need to be presented.

It is no use, she warned, communicating only about the benefits, as this implies the truth about the risks is being hidden and public trust in the communicator will be lost. “Balanced risk-benefit communication is required.”

The warning is all the more pertinent given the growing development of nanomaterials for use in food and personal-care products, where nanomaterials could have unforeseen effects in the body. It is in these areas, rather than in industrial applications, that the public is most likely to react negatively to the emerging technology.

Cefic earlier this year defined its strategy regarding sustainable nanotechnology with a sound emphasis on communication. It has committed the industry to conduct market research and initiate dialogue and engagement with stakeholders to ensure the products it markets answer the needs and priorities of customers and stakeholders.

Cefic itself is engaging with policymakers “as a credible dialogue partner” to ensure that sound science forms the basis for efficient and proportionate regulations. It is also committed to reporting transparently along the value chain on the risks associated with the technology.

It is positioning the nanotechnology effort within the overall framework of its Responsible Care initiative, which at last is beginning to be used more widely in the chemical industry’s advocacy effort. Now tagged as the industry’s contribution to sustainability, the Responsible Care ethic and logo are being attached to several related Cefic initiatives.

Also speaking in Prague was Cefic’s outgoing director-general, Alain Perroy, who said: “Responsible Care is our global industry’s voluntary initiative to operate safely, profitably and with due care for future generations. This commits us to listen to our stakeholders and take into account their concerns, such as on nanomaterials.”

In this respect the industry has to get it right. It is no longer appropriate to bring new technologies to the table and hope the public will simply wave them through. Risks and benefits have to be quantified and openly discussed in a way the public can understand and react to.

And when that debate includes health and food safety – two concerns close to everyone’s hearts – then the communication needs to be spot-on and the industry needs to ensure it is in the ring as a trusted participant, not as a partial provider of partial information.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry visit ICIS connect

By: John Baker
+44 20 8652 3214

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