The science of nanotechnology could founder on the same negative publicity that dogged genetics unless more is done to assess risks, a Swiss report warns.
Only two of the 32 companies in Switzerland and Germany surveyed by the institute had investigated the effects of absorption of nanoparticles by living organisms. Three-quarters admitted they had not carried out risk assessments on research or on their products.
One in five had examined whether products containing nanoparticles could be toxic while a quarter did not know whether tests had been carried out.
Part of the problem, according to Michael Siegrist, a researcher at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, is a lack of guidelines in Switzerland and many other countries to regulate the industry.
"One reason for this lack of risk assessment is that companies and researchers do not know what they should do. There are no industry standards or government regulations yet," he told swissinfo. . .
Siegrist added that the nanotechnology industry in Switzerland realises that it is in its own interests to carry out proper risk assessment but it favours self-regulation as opposed to government interference.
So, there are "no industry standards or government regulations." Are there risks?
"It is also difficult to find qualified people to carry out assessments even if a company has the money and the will to do so," said Siegrist.
Products are being made...risks are uncertain...research is lacking...
Who should be concerned about all this?
"The most immediate threat is to the researchers and workers dealing with these nanoparticles," Georg Karlaganis of the environment agency told swissinfo. "We need to develop a dialogue with scientists, the industry and the public."
Yes, dialogue is urgently needed, not to mention more research, and more openness.
A year ago, in the Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report, Josh Wolfe wrote:
Nanotech is still in its infancy, and scientists are just beginning to understand how it can be used to improve products and processes in fields ranging from semiconductors to medicine and energy. The last thing it needs is a "societal debate" and intense government scrutiny. How can you intelligently discuss and regulate something that is still in the discovery and development stage, before it really exists in a practical manufacturing sense?
Ironically, Josh warned that all this "could snowball into the kind of publicity that created a backlash against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and Monsanto."
It seems clear to us, however, that candor about the risks plus openness about purposes and processes is the best way to avoid a backlash.
If industry -- in the US, Europe, or elsewhere -- is not prepared to do the risk assessment, prepare acceptable guidelines, and effectively regulate themselves, then governments will have no choice. Their citizens will demand action.
Governments also have a stake. Unless they act now to engage research facilities, businesses, and NGOs in finding legitimate answers and communicating those answers to the public, all their efforts (and investment) in trying to build an industry will falter.
From CRN's perspective, the greatest concern here is that nanotech development will run afoul of legislators, litigators, activists, and pundits even before molecular manufacturing is on the table. If that happens, it will be much harder to conduct reasonable discussions about the deeply serious social, ethical, and environmental implications of advanced nanotechnology.