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Are Regulators Ready for Nanotech Risks?

Jan. 20, 2014
Study reveals regulatory bodies feel unprepared to deal with nanotechnology.

A year ago, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued its "Working Safely with Nanomaterials" fact sheet, to provide basic information to workers and employers on "the most current understanding of potential hazards associated with this rapidly-developing technology and highlight measures that can control exposure to such materials in the workplace." (For more details on the fact sheet, see "Work Safely with Nanomaterials.")
Because the research and use of nanomaterials continues to expand and information about potential health effects and exposure limits for them is still being developed, OSHA recommends that employers use a combination of measures and best practices to control potential exposures.

But does OSHA, or any other regulatory body, really provide advice that can cut the mustard when it comes to dealing with nanomaterials?

According to a survey carried out by the University of California – Santa Barbara (UCSB), the answer is "no." In a paper titled "Expert Views on Regulatory Preparedness for Managing the Risks of Nanotechnologies" and published in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS One on November 11 last year, three  stakeholder groups agree that regulators are not adequately prepared to manage the risks posed by nanotechnology.

The survey respondents include nano-scientists and engineers, and nano-environmental health and safety scientists; regulators; and researchers at the UCSB Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) and the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. They found those who perceive the risks posed by nanotechnology as "novel" are more likely to believe regulators are unprepared. Representatives of regulatory bodies themselves felt most strongly that this is the case.

"The people responsible for regulation are the most skeptical about their ability to regulate," says CNS director and paper co-author Barbara Herr Harthorn. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the CNS serves as a national research and education center, a network hub among researchers and educators concerned with societal issues concerning nanotechnologies, and a resource base for studying these issues in the United States and abroad.

"The message is essentially the more that risks are seen as new, the less trust survey respondents have in regulatory mechanisms. That is, regulators don't have the tools to do the job adequately," adds lead author Christian Beaudrie of the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. The Institute studies the relationships between human and natural systems to foster ecologically wise decision-making.

The authors also believe that when respondents suggested more stakeholder groups must share the responsibility of preparing for the potential consequences of nanotechnologies, this indicated a greater "perceived magnitude or complexity of the risk management challenge." Therefore, they assert, not only do regulators feel unprepared, they need input from "a wide range of experts along the nanomaterial life cycle," including laboratory scientists, businesses, health and environmental groups, and government agencies.

The authors say the survey is an effort to build on earlier, often contradictory studies about different aspects of nanotechnology. For example, some studies have indicated that, overall, nano-experts are more worried about the risks of engineered nanomaterials than are lay or public groups. Other work suggests an optimism bias among those who develop nanomaterials and products as compared to those who study or manage their risks. Surveys of industry leaders indicate high levels of perceived uncertainty and risk, however much they report not following risk-avoidant health and safety practices.

Earlier studies also have found that differences of opinion vary according to disciplinary fields or institutional affiliation, such as toxicologists in industry versus academia. Studies reveal expert opinion varies significantly with political attitudes and values, too.

"The effect of attributed stakeholder responsibility, that is, the degree of responsibility assigned to different stakeholders to mitigate or manage risk, has received relatively less attention in the nanotechnology domain. Yet a growing body of literature in public health fields suggests a link between attributions of responsibility and support for government and regulatory policy," note the authors.

More specifically, they say, nanotechnology researchers have demonstrated differences in perceived need and support for the oversight of nanotechnologies. However, until now, no studies have been conducted that classify experts as to their specific role in (1) developing materials versus (2) studying their toxicological behavior versus (3) assessing and managing their risks.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at [email protected]

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