Tough choices around the costs and benefits of nanotechnology

A new report on a public dialogue on nanotechnologies has been published today, 26 May.

Technological innovation depends on science, both to provide the innovation itself and assurance that its benefits outweigh its costs. But when does an innovation become a risk? For most of the long pathway from an innovation emerging to its mainstream adoption in our lives, we tend to focus on the benefits. Only at the eleventh hour can some of the costs become apparent. But does it have to be that way? In my view, greater investment in understanding the basic science of risk and its communication is much needed in advance and to head-off this problem.

Nanotechnology is grounded in an understanding of how materials behave at very small sizes, and has had a long lead time. In 1857, Michael Faraday investigated the action of light on very thin films of gold and noticed that the fluid used to wash these films became ruby red, deducing that this was suspended gold. The particles were about 50 nanometres in diameter – about 1/2000th the width of a human hair. The fact that they were red, rather than gold-coloured, shows how nanomaterials can behave differently to larger pieces of the same material.

Compared with larger particles, nanoparticles can interact differently with light, have different electrical properties, or different chemical reactivities. Their surface area is huge compared to their volume, and most of their mass interacts directly with the outside world. This is what makes them so reactive. The small size of these particles also offers the opportunity for them to get to places where other particles simply could not reach, such as inside individual cells of organisms.

Nanoparticles derive from of a range of metals, alloys and compounds. They have application in everything from medicine to helping integrated circuit designers increase memory storage capacity on computer chips. Nanotechnology is becoming an integral part of our lives and we hardly know it.

The potential of nanotechnology is enormous, but what are the risks? If nanoparticles are capable of entering cells or disappear in to the environment never to be recovered, how can we be sure all the benefits that using them can bring will not rebound on us with some negative impact? It’s also one thing to produce nanoparticles intentionally and to control their release but it’s quite another to produce them unintentionally, as a by-product of some other process.

There is a clear need to understand what people think about these issues and where challenges exist. It is the combined role of government, industry, researchers, and NGOs to not only communicate science to a broad audience, but to engage citizens in a dialogue and capture what we understand to be the potential benefits and the costs of these technologies. People are often content to pay for initial research into technologies like ‘nano’ because they understand where the benefits might lie. It is much harder to persuade people to fund research to understand what the downsides of the technology might be even when the uncertainties can be truly daunting.

A new, qualitative public dialogue commissioned by Defra and carried out in conjunction with (and co-funded by) the organisation Sciencewise, as well as industry, seeks to find out how comfortable people are with specific applications of nanotechnology. By focusing on nano-based products, such as sunscreens and paints, the deliberation process sought to explore the motivation behind people’s views and perceptions.

The report, released today (26 May) highlights the importance of communicating to the consumer what is in a product. People like to know what they’re buying, and don’t like to be forced to consume ‘by stealth’. Nanoparticles have been used in sunscreens for many years but these are one of the applications that consumers are wary of. Citing a lack of clarity over what the product contains, there were concerns that something used on the skin, especially of young children by their parents, could be taken up by the body. It was also thought that nanoparticles from sunscreens could enter watercourses and behave in unknown ways.

This negative opinion of nanoparticles in sunscreens, stemmed largely from the fact negatives were not sufficiently balanced out by positives (prevention of skin cancers). Consumers couldn’t reason why nanoparticles were more efficacious in blocking UV rays. This revealed a deficit of understanding about why nanoparticles are effective in such a product.

Nanoparticles can also be used for remediating contaminated land and this raised the perception of risk. While participants agreed the purposes of removing contamination were worthwhile, there was a concern that they would remove one deleterious substance while replacing it with another, even if there is nothing to validate their concerns in this case. It was felt the future impact was difficult to predict. Lesson learned from the use of CFCs was important in people’s view. CFCs were once ubiquitous in refrigeration and used as aerosol propellants, but subsequently discovered to be the main cause of stratospheric ozone breakdown.

Participants were much more positive and accepting about the use of nanoparticles in paints and coatings, especially if new properties, such as being antimicrobial or more durable could be introduced. Their perceptions over disposal were no greater than they would have for other non-nanoparticle-containing paints, which often require careful disposal. The onus was seen as being on the consumer to read product labels and advice and dispose of waste paints properly. Likewise, nanoparticles used as a fuel additive to reduce emissions were welcomed. In this case pollution from cars was perceived as such a large problem that any risks of reduction using nanotechnology were, in the view of the participants, compensated by the benefits.

The judgement of participants identified the responsibility for dealing safely with nanotechnologies, like any technology, as being shared between government, industry and the individual. Outside this triangle, NGOs provide scrutiny. Crucial to any dialogue, however, are robust and clear channels of communication that serve not only to educate audiences, but also seek their voice when formulating matters of policy and regulation.

One issue that does concern me, however, is the extent to which we have the capacity to control the uptake of new technologies such as nano-based paints and sunscreens. The Montreal Protocol showed for CFCs that it is possible for global concerted action to be taken when presented with overwhelming evidence of negative impact. But in cases where evidence of potential damage is lacking, or where there are significant asymmetries between the winners and losers concerned with a new technology, the power of profit motivations could overwhelm any wish to be precautionary. If only we invested as much in environmental science as we do in developing new technologies we might be in a better position to judge where the costs and benefits of those technologies lie, and to design the use of new technologies in ways that maximise their pay-off.

These kinds of open dialogues provide rich and nuanced insights for scientists, industrialists and regulators around how much more work they need to do to communicate what is known and what is not about the risks and benefits of emerging technologies. Honesty in this communication is vital. Ideally, we need to be able to communicate information to people in ways that can allow them to make informed decisions and choices. When the costs and benefits are too difficult to express in these ways, government needs to adopt precaution and regulate based upon information derived from similar dialogues.