August 30, 2011

Safeguarding The Promise Of Nanotechnology

By: by Sara A. Brenner, M.D., M.P.H, CNSE


Sara Brenner, M.D., M.P.H., is the Assistant Vice President for NanoHealth Initiatives and Assistant Professor of Nanobioscience at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) of the University at Albany, which is the first college in the world dedicated to research, development, education, and deployment in the emerging disciplines of nanoscience, nanoengineering, nanobioscience, and nanoeconomics. With more than $7.5 billion in public and private investments, CNSE's Albany NanoTech Complex has attracted over 250 global corporate partners and is one of the most advanced research enterprises at any university in the world.

Amid global competition, collaboration lifts everyone's boat. At least in certain areas where the stakes are high, risks are unknown, and social responsibility is in the public spotlight. This is certainly the case of emerging technologies, and the bleeding edge is where nanotechnology lives today. Heralded as "leading to the next Industrial Revolution", nanotechnology represents a collection of capabilities, processes and techniques aimed at the manipulation and engineering of matter at an atomic level. While exploiting new properties that emerge at the nanoscale for a variety of applications in medicine, electronics, energy, and just about every other industry, shared concern regarding the health and safety implications of engineered nanomaterials - and the processes and products that incorporate them - have ignited lively debates and calls for robust research efforts amongst a heterogeneous community of stakeholders.

High Stakes

Domestic and international investments in nanotechnology research and development (R&D), particularly as the global economy is increasingly driven by innovation, are steadily on the incline. Significant and sustained public investments in nanotechnology R&D include those made by Federal research agencies such as the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Department of Defense (DOD). Since the launch of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2000, Congress has appropriated approximately $14.2 billion for nanotechnology R&D, including approximately $1.8 billion in FY2011. More than 60 nations have established similar programs. In 2006 alone, total global public R&D investments reached an estimated $6.4 billion, complemented by an estimated private sector investment of $6.0 billion (1). By 2015, nanotechnology is anticipated to impact the worldwide economy by $2.4 trillion (2).

Not only are the stakes high in terms of investment, they are substantial in terms of the prospective, immeasurable benefits that a variety of industrial sectors stand to gain, not to mention the impacts on quality of life for all members of society. The nanoelectronics industry was the first to embrace, integrate and deploy nanotechnology know-how, having transitioned from working at the microscale to the nanoscale around the turn of the 21stcentury. Since then, nanotechnology has shaped the nanoelectronics industry and has expanded into other industrial segments, including health and beauty, sustainable energy, food, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, telecommunications, transportation, national security, and many more. These applications will add new dimensions to the values, ethics, lifestyles, and operations of the institutions of society.

Unknown Risks

While each entity is racing to develop and incorporate nanomaterials into their pipelines, one common ground shared by all is that of health and safety. Engineered nanomaterials produced and handled in industrial and academic settings present new challenges to understanding, predicting, and managing potential health risks to workers, consumers, and the environment. rapid growth and projected acceleration of nanotechnology creates urgency in understanding, predicting, and managing the health risks associated with occupational, environmental, and consumer exposures to nanomaterials.

The physiologic and health outcomes of exposure to engineered nanomaterials have not yet been well characterized, nor have the details surrounding the toxicity of various nanoparticles. The specific physiochemical parameters (e.g. size, shape, surface characteristics, charge, functional groups, crystal structure, and solubility) that most strongly influence biological activities are under investigation. It is suspected that particle count, size, and surface area are the most important determinants of toxicity. Health concerns include inhaled aerosolized nanoparticles (potential pulmonary toxicity) and nanoparticle penetration of skin (dermal translocation and biodistribution to other organs). Research underway suggests that there may be greater complexity to exposures than previously anticipated - including mixed exposures of nanoparticle agglomerates under various conditions. Potential safety concerns also include fire and explosion risks and catalytic activity of nanomaterials - but again, further research is necessary.

One of the first groups of people potentially exposed to a new material or technology are workers in R&D and manufacturing. The National Science Foundation projects that by 2020, the field of nanotechnology will employ some six million workers, two million of whom are expected to be in the United States (3). There is sufficient information at this time for numerous organizations, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), to recommend treating certain engineered nanoparticles "as if" they are hazardous. While assessment of the potential toxicity of nanoparticles is at an early stage, the development of occupational health and safety programs, including hazard surveillance and risk management, is strongly recommended. Hazard surveillance involves identifying and characterizing potential hazards in the workplace in order to identify toxic agents, work processes, and individual workers at risk of exposure and reduce overall exposure through early intervention. It also provides insight into the effectiveness of current engineering controls and personal protective equipment in preventing illness and injury.

Of the investments described above, less than 6% has been earmarked for health and safety research, which many would argue is woefully inadequate given early results and questions raised about potential health outcomes. In attempts to keep up with the pace of innovation, Federal research dedicated to nanoEHS grew substantially from $35 million in FY 2005 to an estimated $117 million requested for FY 2011 (4).

Spotlight on Social Responsibility

Understanding the public's perception of nanotechnology plays an essential role in its emergence and impact on society. Informing and educating the general public as rapidly as the technology is advancing is certainly a challenge. Identifying and understanding potential risks associated with nanotechnology and how to communicate with the public is one of the most pressing issues currently facing researchers, educators, policymakers, regulators, and industry leaders.

Again, one thing that stakeholders agree on is the need to address and mitigate emerging health and safety risks - and communicate those efforts to the public. Industry is being asked tough questions by the public, which is also asking tough questions of the government. The regulatory landscape includes slow movements by the White House, Food and Drug Administration, and Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, certain states such as California are choosing to move ahead with a more proactive approach. However, social science studies conducted in the United States and Europe have consistently identified low levels of public trust in governmental agencies responsible for protecting human health; this suggests that public concern about nanotechnology risks could be mediated by collaborative efforts between academia, industry and government to provide information about nanotechnology and enhance the public's trust.

Safeguarding Scientific Progress

Research along the entire health and safety continuum - from genotoxicology to epidemiology - is needed to provide the most accurate and comprehensive picture of where opportunities and challenges lie. Collaborative and proactive research between key partners in academia, government, and industry will contribute significantly to the evaluation of engineering controls, personal protective equipment, and development of recommendations for process improvements and industrial best practices.

Detailed information about the risks associated with new technologies is often missing during the early stages of research, development and commercial marketing. A model for moving forward to proactively engage stakeholders has emerged at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) of the University at Albany, which has pioneered a groundbreaking public-private partnership paradigm in which government, industry and academia are collaborating to drive nanotechnology education, innovation, and economic development and growth. Now, CNSE is using that unique model to proactively lead the global effort to identify and address health and safety issues related to nanotechnology. In March 2011, CNSE partnered with SEMATECH, a consortium of computer chipmakers, and its International SEMATECH Manufacturing Initiative (ISMI) subsidiary, to launch a first-of-its-kind public-private collaboration by co-founding and jointly funding the NanoHealth & Safety Center (NSC), headquartered at CNSE's unparalleled Albany NanoTech Complex. Backed by at least $10 million in funding over the next five years, the Center is dedicated to proactive research efforts in occupational and environmental health and safety for nanoelectronics research and manufacturing.

Through collaboration amongst the diverse faculty, staff, students, and international leaders in the semiconductor industry, the NanoHealth and Safety Center takes a proactive approach to identifying, assessing, and monitoring the potential health, safety, and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials.

CNSE, SEMATECH and ISMI are setting an innovative paradigm for internal monitoring and compliance where screening, surveillance, and research are done in partnership within and among academic, government and corporate institutions. Many of the tools, materials, and processes ongoing at CNSE are prototypes for the nanoelectronics industry. As new processes and materials are introduced, health and safety research protocols developed through the NanoHealth & Safety Center will be used to guide and predict how new elements may impact occupational and environmental health and safety before they are upscaled through widespread manufacturing.

Clearly, nanotechnology is already demonstrating its promise and potential for addressing society's most critical needs: improved health care; green energy; a clean environment; enhanced protections for our soldiers abroad and citizens at home; the availability of ultra-fast, ultra-secure communications, and so much more. Ensuring that those critical innovations continue to advance is rooted, in part, on safeguarding industry professionals, consumers and the environment, and this effort demands our full attention. A strong commitment from industry, government and academia - as is being deployed at CNSE to tackle those challenges head on - is paramount for success.