The US$20-billion-plus nanotechnology sector is clearly a disruptive force, one that is expanding rapidly. In addition to spawning innovation across a broad spectrum of applications and manufacturing processes, deploying materials from the atomic and molecular scale allows industry to add unique properties and immense added value to commercial and consumer products. As things stand, few people realize just how frequent nanotechnology is used to enhance consumer products, ranging from sunscreens, food additives, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to tires, sporting equipment, inks and paints.
Unfortunately, awareness of how to best manage the risks associated with nanotechnology is not expanding as rapidly as the industry. The big issue is that nanoscale particles may cause toxicity in a different manner than traditional particulates. As a result, there is a potential risk of creating a disease legacy similar to the one caused by asbestos use. There are thousands of types of nanoparticles with different properties, so the term “nanoparticle” itself should not be equated with asbestos. However, there are some general parallels between the broad introduction of nanomaterials and the early promise of asbestos when first applied industrially.
Like the nanomaterials deployed today, asbestos was once considered to be a “wonder product” with flexible and adaptable characteristics and incredible value-adding properties. Asbestos was widely used in construction and household goods, in addition to being a central material used to manufacture ships, trains, electric turbines, steam boilers and fire-retardant coatings. The first medically documented concerns over asbestos didn’t appear until 1924 (when they were published by the British Medical Journal), but reports of widespread lung disease related to working conditions in asbestos mills date back to the late 1800s. As early as 1908, insurance companies in the United States and Canada started increasing premiums and decreasing coverage for industry employees. According to a RAND study, more than 730,000 people filed asbestos-related claims in the United States between the early 1970s and 2002, resulting in total costs to the industry of about US$70 billion. The study projected that post-1965 cancer deaths related to asbestos exposure alone would surpass 400,000 by 2029.
While many nanomaterials are benign, there have been indications that certain nanoparticles may lead to toxicity. According to a recent Harvard-based report, a female lab worker developed health issues while handling nano-sized particles received from a downstream third party for application in a manufacturing process. The worker in question was reportedly unaware of the nanoscale format of the materials being used and did not use proper precautions as a result. At the very least, this case highlights the need for more industry awareness.
To reduce the risk of creating a health legacy similar to that associated with asbestos, we must ensure the safe usage of nanomaterials throughout the supply chain. To do this, all industry stakeholders (ranging from risk managers to regulators and investors) must understand that the novel nature of nanoscale properties has fundamentally shifted the manner in which we must approach toxicity assessment. Indeed, given the dynamic formats of nanoparticles at various points in the lifecycles of these advanced materials, proper industry risk assessment requires a specific expertise that is currently limited in supply.
Simply put, we need more people trained to evaluate and manage health and safety matters related to nanomaterials. We also need better education and training on related best practices along with better industry regulation and more readily available documentation on the risks associated with such sophisticated materials.
The nanotechnology sector offers immense promise across a range of industries. Nevertheless, it is time for all stakeholders to take more proactive measures to avoid adverse human, environmental and economic consequences. As things stand, companies connected with nano-based materials face a real challenge managing the health, safety and potential toxicity of these materials, not to mention the emerging public perception of related risks.