Lack of progress on nanotoxicology has been highlighted by a tragic accident in China.
Most reports about science and technology, and the recommendations within these reports, are destined to be forgotten. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the recommendations in most reports call for extra money, new facilities and/or special treatment for subject X, and if the money, facility and/or treatment automatically followed the publication of the report, it would all be too easy. Instead, persuading funding bodies to act on these recommendations requires perseverance and determination to unite a community around a common goal, and to continue making the case for this goal until the relevant paymasters finally agree to fund your project ahead of all the other projects competing for their attention. Of course some reports and recommendations are heeded, which is why some budgets have been doubled, genomes have been sequenced, telescopes and particle accelerators have been built, and national nanotechnology initiatives and programmes have been launched around the world.
There has been no shortage of reports and recommendations about nanotechnology during its relatively brief history. Indeed, the large sums of money that have been poured into nanoscience and technology over the past decade are evidence that the nano community has been very successful at making its case. And out of all these reports, one has been cited and quoted more than any other1, even though its long-term impact still remains unclear five years after it was published by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, two of the UK's most prestigious scientific societies. Indeed, such has been the influence of this 2004 report that the Responsible Nano Forum has recently published a collection of reflections on it, A beacon or just a landmark?2.
The UK has just announced that it is developing a new strategy for nanotechnologies.
A number of common themes emerge in these reflections, which are of variable length and quality. On the plus side, it is generally agreed that the 2004 report clearly articulated the need for more research into the impact of nanoparticles on human health and the environment; it helped to start a debate on the regulation of nanoparticles; it laid the foundations for engaging the public in discussions about research priorities before significant numbers of nano-enabled products entered the market (an approach called 'upstream' engagement); and it encouraged the use of the phrase 'nanotechnologies' rather than 'nanotechnology' to reflect the breadth of possible applications of development in nanoscience.
As Andrew Maynard of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies states in a foreword to A beacon or just a landmark?, the 2004 report “set out a clear path toward realising the potential of a significant emerging technology, while avoiding harm”. However, Maynard and others are clearly disappointed by the lack of progress on many of the recommendations in the report. For instance, there have been “endless discussions, workshops, reviews and reports on the responsible development of nanotechnology”3,4, but the UK still does not have a dedicated centre for nanomaterial risk research. Indeed, the UK's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has just announced that it is developing a new strategy for nanotechnologies, which is due to be published in February 2010 (evidence gathering will end this year on 31 October)5. “It is ironic,” writes Maynard, “that five years after [this report] provided the government with clear advice on what was needed to develop safe nanotechnologies, the occasion is being marked by yet another review.”
Other contributors explore some of these issues in more detail. Anthony Seaton, a medical scientist and member of the working group that produced the 2004 report, explains why there has been relatively little work on the toxicology and ecotoxicology of nanoparticles: “[if you] consider where a medical research funder would rank theoretical risk from nanoparticles against other current priorities such as pandemic infectious diseases, climate change, the ageing population and brain diseases, the development of vaccines, tackling alcohol and air pollution and so on, [you] realise that in terms of public health the issue was small.” It is clear that unless governments ear-mark funding for research into the toxicology of nanoparticles, grant applications in this area are going to struggle.
The lack of progress on the toxicology issue is also remarked on by several contributors from business and industry (who are not identified). For instance, an employee of an investment management company stresses that investors “need clear and comparable information from highly credible and objective sources, for example, government or independent bodies or laboratories, about the nature and level of the environmental and health risks of individual nanotechnologies. This was lacking five years ago and still seems to be lacking.”
Late last month this lack of progress came under the spotlight again when researchers reported that nanoparticles had been found in the lungs of seven women who had become ill after working in a paint factory in China; two of the women later died6. However, it remains unclear if the illnesses were caused by the nanoparticles or other chemicals7,8,9. Moreover, there is widespread agreement that this tragic accident could have been prevented by proper health and safety procedures7,8,9 — the women only occasionally wore masks and the first symptoms appeared five months after the ventilation unit in the factory had broken down10. At the very least what happened in China emphasizes the importance of proper risk management11 when workers are exposed to chemicals and materials for prolonged periods. It should also serve as a timely reminder of the need to act on the recommendations of the 2004 report.
Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties (The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2004); available at <www.nanotech.org.uk>.
A Beacon or just a Landmark? (The Responsible Nano Forum, 2009); available at <http://www.responsiblenanoforum.org>.
Nature Nanotech. 2, 257 (2007).
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Song, Y., Li, X. & Du, X. Eur. Respir. J. 34, 559–567 (2009).
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Gilbert, N. Nature 460, 937 (2009).
Murashov, V. & Howard, J. Nature Nanotech. 4, 467–470 (2009).
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Recommended reading. Nature Nanotech 4, 533 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nnano.2009.244
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