Is nanotech a test-case for new attitudes to chemical regulation?

August 12, 2009 at 4:20 pm | Posted in Analysis | Leave a comment
Buckminsterfullerene molecule, AKA buckyball: a subject of intense research under the umbrella of nanotech. Click image to link to Wikipedia on nanotech.

Buckminsterfullerene molecule, AKA "buckyball": a subject of intense research under the umbrella of nanotech. Click image to link to Wikipedia on nanotech.

Editor’s Opinion: There’s an interesting short article by Andrew Schneider on Cold Truth, about how in the US, regulators are frustrating the commercial ambitions of nanotechnology manufacturers. In this case, we have William Norwood, president of nanoAgri Systems, complaining that his company hasn’t been permitted to market his company’s silver-nanotech-based antibacterial food packaging.

Norwood doesn’t think it makes “any sense”. Of course, as regular readers of H&E will be able to infer, we think careful, precautionary regulation of chemical technologies does make sense – and that a decent proportion of the increase in various illnesses we are seeing today come down, in part, to the failure to properly test the safety of chemical products before they were marketed.

In the case of nanotech, there is a great deal of concern about this in the environmental community, and (at least over here in Europe) some degree of increasing concern among the medical community, with Health Care Without Harm members in Austria and Sweden looking at organising workshops around the issue.

In the piece, I think Schneider captures the chief concern in the final paragraph: the problem with nanosilver (and other nanotech) is this technology hasn’t been tested for safety. As far as I am aware, we don’t even know what the protocols should be for testing nanotech. In light of that, it must be sensible for regulators like the EPA to approach the prospect of mass-use of nanotech with caution.

With regard to safety the concerns are hardly spurious, with medical concerns seeming to centre on the biocidal properties of nanosilver. While it goes without saying there is a need to address the problems of growing antibiotic resistance among bacteria, there is an argument that resorting to technologies such as nanosilver is (a) looking in the wrong place for a solution, and (b) could conceivably make the problem worse.

By my understanding, the argument for (a) is that the spread of MRSA is primarily caused by factors poor hygiene practices, under-staffing and misuse of antibiotics – adding silver to the mix might put a temporary patch on the problem, but it won’t fix it.

For (b), one concern is that silver could encourage antibiotic resistance, because bacteria use the same cellular mechanism for ejecting unwanted silver ions as they do for ejecting the beta-lactam class of antibiotics (currently about 50% of the antibiotics we use).

There is a brief overview of this issue in the May issue of our newsletter, accessible as a PDF from our archive.

Dealing with the new challenges presented by nanotechnology is an interesting and complex environmental health issue, and it is heartening to see the US EPA taking a relatively tough stance on this. In the past, most regulation of chemical technologies has basically been a “suck-it-and-see” approach, with restrictions only imposed after large-scale evidence of harm (which is too late for those harmed).

As new, untested technologies, it’s almost as though nanotech is a test-case for whether or not we have learned our lesson on chemical regulation, or if the new attitudes toward environmental and health safeguards, as evinced by REACH legislation in Europe, the rise of green chemistry, and the swathe laws in the US and Canada banning BPA in baby bottles, are just a flash in the pan.

Some related news and science:

If you aren’t already, you might want to keep an eye on – twice-Pulitzer-winning Andrew Schneider’s blog on everything from dangerous ingredients in the food we eat and the products we’re sold to emerging man-made and natural public health hazards in our homes, workplaces and environment.

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