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Nanotech watcher Andrew Maynard assesses its risks
'Harmful or not? That's hard to tell'

Dr. Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Washington D.C.-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, has spent the last couple of years trying to ensure that, as new nanotechnologies emerge, they do so responsibly. As an internationally recognized expert in nanosafety issues, Maynard speaks to people worldwide about the exciting possibilities and potential risks of the technology.

What is nanotechnology? There isn't a singular definition, but it basically refers to working with materials between 1 to 100 nanometers. (An ordinary sheet of paper is roughly 100,000 nanometers thick.) At that scale, particles take on exciting, new properties that can be exploited for just about any purpose. But there are many unknowns regarding the toxicity of many of these particles, so Maynard has been working closely with government and private industry to identify and develop safeguards against the risks.

Maynard sat down with me in May while he was in Madison to speak at the Midwest NanoSafety Conference held in Engineering Hall at UW-Madison to discuss his nanotechnology and some of the dilemmas it raises for government regulators and the public.

The Daily Page: What is the most important information the public needs to know about nanotechnology in terms of the risks?
Maynard: I don't think there is one single most important piece of information. I'd say the most important piece of information is that nanotechnology is here, that it is going to get bigger in the 10 years or so. You've got it in areas all the way from computer chips, research, cosmetics, and so how you deal with that huge diversity simply is not easy.

But I think there are some very basic principles that can be followed when people are thinking through what the risks are going to be. Those principles go along the lines of whether you're likely to be exposed to some of the nanomaterials people are using.

So, again, computer chips: The chances of you being exposed the nanotech in computer chips is pretty minimal. On the other hand, if you've got a cosmetic that you're putting on your skin with nanoparticles the exposure will be much higher. So, you've got that aspect.

You've then got the aspect of whether it's really going to be harmful or not. That is really hard to tell, but if you're going to be exposed you can then begin to ask the critical questions whether these materials are going to behave in unusual ways in the body or maybe later in the environment or whether it's a fairly benign material.

So, the media tends to focus on the risk of nanotubes, fullerenes and things like that, yet they never seem to answer the question of whether they're harmful. Where do we find that information?
It's going to take a while yet. That's why we're really encouraging people to invest a lot more in research, because more than anything, nanotechnology, which is associated with uncertainty, there's a huge, amazing gap there. Take fullerenes in cosmetics: We really don't know if that's a good idea or a bad idea.

If you look at titanium dioxide, the particles in sunscreens, there is a lot information we don't have, but fortunately, we have the benefit of hindsight in looking at other materials and the evidence suggests they're pretty safe. Whereas with the fullerenes, the data gap there is larger. We just don't have the information.

The only way we can make good, informed decisions is by carrying out more research. It has to be very targeted research, research that asks very specific questions.

How much of the over all funding for nanotechnology would you say is given to risk research?
It depends on whom you believe. I'm not sure of the actual percentages at the moment. But if you look at the government figures, they make this figure that nanotech research funding is about $1.2 billion dollars a year, and they claim that they're spending $40 to $50 million a year on research specifically targeted at understanding the risks.

Unfortunately, they can't back those figures up. They can't tell you where the information comes from that supports those figures, which I find a bit worrisome, especially if we're hoping they know what they're actually funding.

We tried to do some analysis in 2005 and we looked at all of the research that the government is funding that was in any way associated with the risks of nanotechnologies. We could only find $11 million a year being spent on highly relevant research, which is -- you do the math -- is less than one percent of the nanotech budget. The difference between the government's figures and ours was that we could actually back it up.

Either way you look at it, there's not that much research going toward understanding risk, and more importantly there doesn't seem to be an over all strategy so it's not clear that the funding they put into that area is actually addressing the critical questions.

Now, considering so much of the funding is from the private sector, which treats research and discovery as trade secrets, how do we even begin bridging the data gaps?
Well, you've got to have a plan to start with. That's a mission that has to come from government, because they're investing so much into nanotechnology. And, at some high level, somebody has got to identify what we need to know to develop this technology safely. That is essential.

They've got to link it with industry, as well. For two reasons: Industry has got a stake in here and they should be funding some of the research that looks into the safety of these technologies. Plus the fact that industry is where you're having these applications developed, so they have a better idea than anyone about what is going to come onto the market. You've got to have that partnership between government-funded research and industry-funded research.

At the extremes, you're going to have industry doing its own thing and the government doing its own thing, but there is a gray area in the middle where there's a very good case to be made for the two sides to pool their resources, of funding research together. If we could do that, we could get over some of the limitations of industry-only funded research and government-only funded research.

Some of the limitations I'm thinking about are, with industry there's always a little bit of suspicion that they're funding research, that maybe it's not independent enough, it's not transparent enough. And on the government's side, there's a huge inertia that makes it really hard for the government to respond very, very quickly to immediate challenges. It's possible to have research that is really responsive and yet have the co-balancing of government-funded research.

Is this happening in any way that you know of?
Not directly with nanotechnology, but in other areas where it has been very successful. So, it will be interesting to see if some of those models can be applied to nanotechnology. For instance, with vehicle emissions [an institute] was set up towards having government and industry to answer specific questions about the health affects of vehicle emissions. And they have been very successful in producing a very high-quality, very highly-respected body of research. The hope is that something similar can happen with nanotechnology.

What is your role with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies?
I'm providing the scientific advice to the policy work of the project. A lot of my work is focused on trying to encourage and facilitate good science-based policy-decision making, regarding nanotechnology. That goes all the way from trying to understand the risks to trying to institute and develop beneficial nanotechnologies, which are also responsible. It all comes down to finding a way to make science-based decisions in the policy world.

Do you have any specific examples of what those policies might look like?
Not anything specific at the moment, but if you look at a couple of areas, you've got the area of regulation: How do you regulate nanotechnology? You've got the area of strategic research, which is policy driven. And you've got the much broader area of nanotechnology, which goes outside government, and we need to start looking at the responsibility of industry, as well.

A lot of what we've been doing is providing information, raising awareness, getting people to think critically about these issues in the decision making process. These decisions take a long time to make so we haven't seen any policy decisions over the last couple of years.

Certainly, I think we've been effective in allowing people to start a decision-making process. So, if you look at the regulations now, we've actually supported a lot of very positive, very authoritative reports examining the regulatory system at the moment and how it's applied to nanotechnology.

For instance, there have been a lot of recommendations on what about the system would work and what wouldn't work and how maybe it needs to be changed, and these recommendations are being actively considered by regulatory authorities.

Then on the strategic research side of things, we've been fairly instrumental in developing a number of resources looking at how to develop research structures responsibly. There was a key paper that came out last year that tried to identify some of the key challenges that need to be addressed and when they need to be addressed by, internationally. And we're beginning to see these recommendations being filed into research policies.

In the European Union, at the end of last year, they came out with their master plan to where European research is going over the next seven years. And they have a reasonably large section on nanotechnology, and within that, they have a reasonably good focus on trying to understand and evaluate the risks. And you can begin to see the influence of some of our recommendations being used by some of the research directors in Europe.

The third area of nanotechnology in general, we're actually working very closely with industry as well as government to try and help them work out what they can do to ensure safe workplaces, and also to ensure the safety of the products they make.

Now, industry patents nanoparticles because of their unique properties, but fights regulation on the grounds they're just smaller versions of common materials. How do you reconcile this?
It's very, very difficult to reconcile. One of the issues I've always had is that it's very easy to be narrow-sighted. As you said, it doesn't jive at all, that they can say on the one hand, these things behave in unique and unusual ways, and on the other hand, when you're looking at risk, they're the same as everything else. We've got to be a little more sophisticated in our thinking and realize that if something is going to behave in unusual ways, there's got to be the possibility of unusual risk associated with it.

Looking at the 500 or so consumer products that use nanoparticles, do you anticipate labeling will be eventually required?
It wouldn't surprise me if it came about. There's a lot of talk about labeling of nanoproducts, and it's an area that is fraught with difficulties. If you've got a Pentium chip in your computer, do you label that as containing nanotechnology? What benefit is there to labeling that? It's the same as if you've got a tennis racket with carbon nanotubes: Would you label that as having nano inside?

Do you then go label all of the automobile tires that are out there? It's an impossible question to answer. But I think that at some point, we've got to have some transparency about what contains nano and what kind of nano it contains. I would be very surprised if it ended up as any sort of warning label. I don't think there is any justification for that.

But you can imagine a situation where if a product contains distinct nanometer-sized particles, instead of just putting on the chemical name of the substance, you actually indicate something about the form. And the advantage of that is that the functionality of these nanostructured materials is associated with the chemistry, as well as the shape, the form, the size and whatever. So it makes little sense just putting the chemistry down.

Now, why the expressed interest in the nanocafes?
Well, confession time: I've had very little contact with groups like this. One of the reasons why I'm excited about meeting them is to understand how these groups operate and how people are perceiving nanotechnology.

One thing is very clear, if nanotechnology is to succeed, the people who are going to use and potentially benefit from this technology have got to have the opportunity to be engaged and informed about the technology. How that happens is really quite complex.

What is important is providing people the opportunity rather than insisting that people are engaged. The other thing is that when you do begin to engage people, what doesn't seem to work is formalizing the process and trying to get people to read, so it's got to be a far more informal process. I'm not an expert in how to make that work, which is partially why I need to learn about it. But definitely we need to explore very new ways of interacting with people.

What interests me in particular is that that introduction of technology now is different than it was 50 years ago. There is a far more interesting dynamic between the people developing the technology and the people using it. Whereas in the past, people would develop technology, but they wouldn't force it on people, but there really wouldn't be a question of whether people would accept the technology or not. It would always trickle down from the top.

Now, there is far more pushback from people in society. They have a far stronger voice to actually influence the course of the technology. So, there is a far more complex dynamic happening between the users and the developers. If we're going to develop successful technologies, we need to understand that dynamic and we've got to work within that process. And that means that the developers need to understand what the people on the street are thinking, what they want, how they react to things, and they've got to respond to that accordingly.

But is it realistic that ordinary citizens will be able to influence the direction of nanotechnology?
It's very clear that they can influence which technologies succeed and which ones fail. If people decide they don't want nanoparticles in their products, it is entirely conceivable that you'll have a movement against that technology, which will knock that technology on the head.

There is also a fear about risks, that there's not enough information out there. A movement like that will also affect other nanotechnologies. People don't differentiate between different types of nanotechnology. You could have people making decisions on nanoparticles in a sunscreen, but then also use that approach to how you use carbon nanotubes. That really would be very damaging to technology as a whole, because people making decisions which aren't based on the science, but on the gut feeling of what they like or don't like, and you're not going to change how those people make decisions fundamentally.

But back to your original question, I don't think it's reasonable to educate people into the whole complexities of nanotechnology, but you can provide the resources which are sufficient for them to make scientifically informed decisions about what's good for them and what's not.

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