Wishful Thinking ≠ Safety

John BalbusCal Baier-Anderson, Ph.D., is a Health Scientist.

In the current regulatory environment, where there are no regulations that specifically take into account the unique properties of engineered nanomaterials, industry has by default the primary responsibility for their safe production and use. Is industry taking this responsibility seriously?

Two recent studies, one in Europe and one in the U.S., shed light on this question and reveal some reasons to be concerned.

Helland et al. (2008) distributed a written questionnaire to 135 companies in Germany and Switzerland. Forty companies completed the questionnaire (representing a 30% response rate). Interestingly, most respondents believed that there is a very low potential for direct exposure to or environmental release of nanomaterials throughout the life cycle of their nanomaterials (production, consumption, and disposal). Only four companies, however, reported having any actual data relevant to assessing these potentials.

Most of the respondents said they believe their current risk assessment procedures are sufficient to evaluate nanomaterials, and that safety measures currently in place are adequate. Yet sixty five percent of the companies completing surveys had not conducted any assessment of risk.

The results of this survey seem to indicate that, for many companies, something more akin to wishful thinking is currently substituting for actual data and risk assessments.

Similar results were obtained in a survey by Lindberg and Quinn (2007) of small – medium sized nanotechnology companies in Massachusetts, which found that, while the larger companies believe that they are managing risks appropriately, they are basing their assessments on very little data. Not only are smaller companies not addressing risks, but they are more likely to believe that risks are unlikely.

Helland et al. conclude that, in general, industry lacks a “systematic approach to assessing … risks.” Furthermore, they suggest that the limited attention paid to assessing risks may result in underestimating both hazard and exposure, and hence raise questions regarding the adequacy of the precautions that are being taken.

Happily, some guidance is emerging for companies to use in identifying, assessing and mitigating potential risks of their nanomaterials and associated products. The Nano Risk Framework, developed jointly by Environmental Defense and DuPont, is one example of a small but growing number of efforts to develop a systematic approach to assessing risks and offering recommendations for data development and decision making throughout the product lifecycle. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the British Standards Institute have also prepared information to help guide occupational exposure assessment and mitigation. These “how to” guides can help companies to steer clear of questionable assumptions that seem to form the current foundation of many industry assessments of nanomaterial risks.

While it can help, making guidance available is of course not sufficient to ensure companies actually assess and sufficiently address potential risks. Helland et al. conclude that “Developing proactive risk management strategies appears to be an urgent task for minimizing the risk of harm to the environment and the public health.” In light of industry’s positive self-assessment of its current risk management efforts, both the public and private sectors need to put in place mechanisms to ensure such efforts amount to more than merely wishful thinking.

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