June 14, 2005

Nanotech Advances Need More Safety Screening

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Nanotechnology, an engineering science that holds hope for scores of new products and processes, is not being properly evaluated for human and environmental risks, a study released this week has found.

The rapidly evolving science, which involves scores of start-ups, corporations and universities seeking to engineer materials on a molecular level, carries both actual and perceived environmental, health and safety (EHS) risks.

But without a full and continuing assessment of those risks, the nascent industry expected to employ thousands of people and generate billions of dollars in revenue may be hobbled by public opposition or corporate mishaps, a study by investment house Lux Research concludes.

"The nanotech environmental, health and safety debate is characterized by a chorus of voices, strongly held opinions and precious little hard data," the study by the New York-based firm found.

Nanotechnology, which Lux forecasts could produce $8 trillion in cumulative manufacturing output through 2014, employs sophisticated methods for construction of materials at the atomic level.

A handful of new products in the textile, electronics and consumer industries are currently on the market, but many more are in development spread across multiple industries.

Lux Research, one of a handful of investment advisory firms that focuses on nanotechnology companies, said corporations including Lockheed Martin and Kraft Foods Inc. spent $3.8 billion on nanotech research and development last year. Yet, it said corporate EHS officers are "mostly unaware of this activity."

Furthermore, dozens of nanotech start-ups are mostly "dodging" the topic in public presentations "for fear that they may be held legally liable in the futures for any admissions of risk made now," the study suggested.

The study's findings resonated with others in the industry. In a Wall Street Journal article published on Tuesday, DuPont Chief Executive Chad Holliday and Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, a non-profit advocacy group, said better assessment of nanotech risk "is not just good common sense, it's a good business strategy."

Holliday and Krupp called for greater collaboration between government, industry and universities to assess the "potential liability" for nanotech products to avoid risks such as that found in DDT, leaded gasoline and CFCs -- all promising products found to be harmful after years on the market.

The Lux study said that without hard and defensible safety data, the industry faces the danger of being challenged by both serious scientists and political activists like those who disrupted scientific conferences in the UK last year and Chicago this year.

At those conferences, demonstrators used "guerrilla tactics" to draw attention to the dangers of nanotech, similar to those used against genetically modified crops and stem cell research and to promote animal rights. Without any effective counter-strategy, such activity could unduly influence public opinion against nanotech, the study suggested.

"Consumer awareness of nanotech is so low that no hardened opinions exist, so there's room for fact-based debate," the study authors said. "However, stakeholders in the commercialization of nanotechnolgy have massively undercommunicated on EHS issues to date and risk losing the battle for mindshare by default."