The Dynamic Paradigm of Safety and Sustainability

A recent perspective[i] highlights the role of an influential report the 2004 Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties[ii] in stimulating the development of what is now a major research enterprise addressing the health and safety aspects of nanotechnology. One thesis, that the report brought more attention to the risks than the benefits, to me highlights the major take-away. We are missing opportunities for safer products because of the disproportionate focus on risks to the exclusion of benefits. My work in taking a life cycle approach to risk assessment for nanoscale and other emerging technologies seeks to put risks in perspective, and allow safer and more benign alternatives to enter the economy, by addressing key uncertainties early in the product innovation cycle.

The 2004 report was what stimulated me, upon it’s reading, memorably in a hotel in Portland, Maine, to devote a decade of work toward the development of a novel and more proactive approach for assessing risks of emerging substances and technologies under uncertainty. The report discussed the need for a life-cycle approach to understanding risks, a task I undertook with earnest, as did others, notably a collaboration between DuPont and the Environmental Defense Fund, as well as Michael Davis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with whom I shared many speaking engagements, at a time when there was more to our respective life-cycle risk frameworks than to the knowledge base of basic science behind them. My underlying motivation was to allow safer innovations to advance in the market by applying proactive efforts to reduce risks and uncertainty with early, iterative investigation. The tools in the risk assessors box required adaptation, but were perfectly suited to the task.

A decade later, the Nano LCRA framework is still proving its worth in identifying and prioritizing potential health and environmental risks of novel substances, and is helping innovators to be proactive in managing these aspects of new technology development, and regulators to have increased confidence about their safety.  IMHO, the real impact of the 2004 report was to shift the innovation paradigm toward safer technologies(so called clean tech or green technologies) and more proactive investigation of the possible health and environmental impacts of emerging substances. Even so, new technologies often have much higher requirements for demonstrating performance and safety than their replacements. Being proactive about addressing uncertainty and potential EHS risks is necessary to meet these 21st century expectations of safety, sustainability and performance.

As Maynard states, part of the motivation for investment in environmental health and safety research for nanomaterials was to avoid the pitfalls of the stymied biotechnology revolution in food and agriculture, where a lack of evidence or effort to address safety allowed conjectures of fear, in the absence of evidence, to sway public opinion away from genetically modified foods. Maynard is also correct that we are now in a situation of much greater understanding about the impacts of certain classes of nanomaterials. Recently, an EPA scientist told me that while they are still interested in the impacts of nanotechnology, investment levels are lower because it is now “more routine.” Yet this shift is not static, as the next wave of technologies includes bio-based innovations, and we must adapt our shiny nano tool set to demonstrate the safety, sustainability and performance of novel biotechnologies in order to enjoy their benefits and reduce the risks of the older technologies they replace.

Overcoming the uncertainty about nanoEHS in a decade of research investment can only be seen as a success. That we can confidently show that many of the first generation of nanomaterials are not grey goo is a major advance. Maynard suggests we may have overinvested in this work. My observation is that now nano EHS research is carried out in large, multi-institutional academic research centers, funded by multi-million dollar, multi-year grants. The major investment was necessary to develop new approaches and measurement tools for investigation at the nanoscale, in a research paradigm shifted toward more interdisciplinary research. It is merely a pendulum, stemming from decades of playing EHS catch-up on innovations that became major environmental hazards like lead, asbestos, flame retardants and plasticizers  -  shifting, in cases still too slowly, toward a proactive approach of demonstrating safety and sustainability in pre-commercial innovation.