Advancing nanotech, despite uncertainties

Nanotechnology is a rapidly advancing field, with hundreds of products containing nanomaterials already on the shelves and largely unknown health and environmental effects.

In a commentary published in top journal Nature Nanotechnology, University of Canterbury Professor Simon Brown critiques regulators’ lack of decisive action. He argues that calls from governments for further scientific information lead to “paralysis by analysis”, and that policies must be designed to regulate emerging nanotechnologies in the face of uncertainty.

Among his recommendations: mandating that businesses identify and quantify all nanomaterials used in their products, and a labelling scheme to provide transparency to consumers.

The full commentary can be accessed through our Resource Library.

Helpful links:
Meridian Institute: The new deficit model (summary of article)
IEEE Spectrum: Nanotechnology and the uncertainty principle

Dr Richard Blaikie, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology comments:

“I am pleased to see Dr Brown’s commentary published in Nature Nanotechnology, where it will receive wide international circulation, showing that New Zealand researchers are able to contribute at a high level in this area.  The issues that are raised are important and, through the Royal Society Code of Ethics, we already require all of our scientists to strive to identify the impacts of their work (be it on nanomaterials or in any other area) and endeavour to assess and report on such impacts and seek to avoid or mitigate any adverse effects.  This will include assisting the appropriate regulatory agencies if they need scientific input to adapt their governance and regulatory frameworks to account for issues that may arise with products containing new types of engineered nanomaterials.”

Dr Donald Campbell, Principal Adviser (Public Health) at NZ Food Safety Authority, comments:

“I believe that the author’s reasoning is based on a false premise.  He assumes that it is the role of government to build confidence in these new technologies and in itself, and then argues for a system of regulation that he believes would achieve that end.  He also argues against the Deficit Model, but then actually applies it himself (i.e. he recommends a governance model that is “informed”, “transparent”, “prospective” and “adaptive”).  This leads him to some, in my opinion, costly and non-evidenced based from an effectiveness perspective regulatory proposals, such as mandatory labelling.

“A regulator’s role is to ensure that unacceptable risks are not being posed.  Determining what is acceptable is a social decision.  Determining whether a product meets that standard is scientific.

“The author sees the public’s confidence in the regulator as being an end in itself.  Regulator’s have an interest in the public’s confidence, however that should not be their primary objective.  They should be the best, most honest and most trustworthy regulator they can be, and the public’s confidence should (but won’t always) fall out of that endeavour.

“In addition the author demonstrates a lack of understanding of science and how it works.  For example, science is always questioning currently accepted theories and paradigms and does research testing them.  This work has nothing to do with filling data gaps as his opening argument implies.  Innovation should not be precluded simply because there is uncertainty; the risks arising from not having the new technology may be greater than the risks of living without it.  New data will always influence scientific thinking and potentially lead to change.  Regulators are always regulating in the face of uncertainty – it is something that they should understand and do, not wait until all uncertainty is gone before regulating.”

Dr Shaun Hendy, Research scientist, Industrial Research Limited (IRL) and MacDiarmid Institute, comments:

“Dr Brown’s article on the regulatory challenges ahead posed by nanotechnologies raises an important issue. In an industry where hazards are yet to be quantified, how do we adapt regulatory regimes to address as yet unknown risks? Risk can be quantified as the hazard from exposure multiplied by the probability of exposure. Dr Brown argues that where hazard is unknown, we must ensure that risk can be minimised by enabling consumers to minimise exposure. This is a difficult task for policy makers: there is no possibility of a cost/benefit analysis to help determine the scale of the regulatory response and such regulations will inevitably restrict consumers’ access to products that pose little hazard.

“Nonetheless, I understand that New Zealand will follow Australia’s lead, reviewing how well existing regulations encompass nanotechnologies. The Australian report concludes that “Whilst there is no immediate need for major changes to the regulatory regimes, there are many areas of our regulatory regimes which, potentially, will need amending, and this will be a long term effort across multiple regulators and regulatory agencies as nanoproducts arise and as new knowledge on hazards, exposure and monitoring tools becomes available.” I suspect New Zealand will reach a similar conclusion, so it is important that the relevant regulatory agencies maintain their awareness of nanotechnology and monitor developments here and overseas.”

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