Nanotechnology and Nature: Can We Reduce Any Risks and Still Reap the Rewards?
RFF First Wednesday Seminar
June 6, 2007
Nanotechnology is no longer a futuristic idea but a present reality: about 500 consumer products on the market use it, and that inventory increases by 4–5 products each week. As Jennifer Sass of Natural Resources Defense Council noted at RFF’s June 6 First Wednesday Seminar, “The nanotitanic has left the port.”
Audio and Video
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Phil Sharp, President, RFF
Phil Sharp is president of RFF. His career in public service includes 10 terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Indiana and a lengthy tenure on the faculty of the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard University. He served as director of the IOP from 1995 to 1998 and again from 2004 until August 2005. Sharp serves on the board of directors of the Energy Foundation, is co-chair of the Energy Board of the Keystone Center, and is a member of the National Research Council's Board of Energy and Environmental Systems. He received his Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University.
Terry Davies, Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future, and Senior Advisor, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Davies has been affiliated with Resources for the Future for more than 15 years. He is a political scientist who has extensively studied environmental policy during the past 35 years, writing several books and numerous articles on the subject. He chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Decisionmaking for Regulating Chemicals in the Environment. While serving as a consultant to the President's Advisory Council on Executive Organization, he coauthored the reorganization plan that created the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Davies has been an assistant professor of public policy at Princeton University, executive vice president of the conservation Foundation, assistant administrator for policy at EPA, and executive director of the national Commission on the Environment. In 2000, he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his contributions to environmental policy. He is currently serving as a senior advisor to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.
Andrew Maynard, Science Advisor, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Maynard's research interest in nanomaterials started in the late 1980s, while working on his doctorate in ultrafine aerosol analysis at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. Through his work with the U.K. Health and Safety Executive, the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, he has led current science-based efforts to understand and manage the potential risks of nanotechnology. Maynard is considered one of the foremost international experts on addressing possible nanotechnology risks and developing safe nanotechnologies. As well as publishing extensively in the scientific literature, Maynard is a well-known international speaker on nanotechnology and frequently appears in print and on radio and television.
Celia Merzbacher, Assistant Director of Technology R&D, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Merzbacher is currently on assignment to the OSTP in the Executive Office of the President from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. She is also the OSTP co-chair of the interagency Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Technology.
The NSET subcommittee is the body that coordinates and manages the multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative. In addition, Merzbacher serves as the executive director of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). PCAST is the high-level outside advisory body to the president on matters relating to science and technology.
Marti Otto, Environmental Engineer, Technology Assessment Branch, Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation, U.S. EPA
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Otto has more than 20 years of experience in hazardous waste site evaluation and remediation and in environmental regulation and policy development. She earned a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's in environmental sciences and engineering from Virginia Tech.
Jennifer Sass, Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council
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At NRDC in Washington, DC, Sass works in the health and environment program, which reviews the federal regulation of industrial chemicals and pesticides. Over her five-plus years with NRDC, she has published more than two dozen articles in scientific journals, provided written and oral testimony to the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences, and served on federal scientific and stakeholder committees. Sass completed post-doctoral studies at the University of Maryland in toxicology, doctoral studies at the University of Saskatchewan in developmental biology, and a master's thesis in neurobiology.
She and other panelists from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Federal National Nanotechnology Initiative, and EPA gathered at RFF’s Washington, DC, offices to offer perspectives on burgeoning nanotechnologies, their applications, and their potential health and environmental risks.
To give an idea of nanotechnology’s scale, Andrew Maynard of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies explained, “Your hair grows approximately 10 nanometers in the time it takes to say ‘nanotechnology.’” Scientists now have the tools to work at such a tiny, near-atomic scale, and the potential benefits for society, he and other panelists agreed, are great.
On the energy front, such technology can be applied to improve photovoltaics, fuel cells, energy storage in batteries, energy efficiency in manufacturing, and the conversion of waste heat to energy.
Nanotechnology also holds promise for the clean up of waste sites, said Marti Ott, an environmental engineer with EPA’s Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation. Nano-sized iron, for example, can be used to remove chlorinated hydrocarbons from groundwater, and other particles at the nano scale can remove heavy metals such as mercury from smokestacks and waste streams.
Countries including the United States are investing heavily in these new technologies, according to Celia Merzbacher of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In fiscal year 2001, the federal government launched a National Nanotechnology Initiative that encompasses 26 agencies, half of which have funding totaling about 1.5 billion this year. The initiative focuses both on R&D and on oversight: about $37 million was spent on risk research in 2006, an amount that will increase to $60 million in 2008, Merzbacher said.
Sass noted, however, that nanotechnology’s novel properties are allowing it to slip through the regulatory cracks. “Partly it’s because most of the regulations we have need volumes or mass thresholds to trigger oversight,” she said.
She argues for precautionary regulation, citing several areas of concern. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology has issued a report warning that nanotechnology could create a large-scale disruption on the scale of the industrial revolution—in a much shorter time span—and not all of the risks of nanotechnology can be addressed by the same approach. NATO, too, has called the effects of nanotechnology disquieting: since nano-particles can easily slip into human pores, they hold grave potential for biological and chemical warfare.
In addition, little is known about the toxicity of nanotechnology. What we do know, Sass said, is that generally, the smaller the particle, the more harmful. As an example, she pointed to particulate matter, which is known to cause heart and lung problems in humans.
Her solution? “Prohibit untested or unsafe uses.”
Maynard pointed out that in addition to technical risks, perceived risks must be addressed as well. Consumers concerned about the possible negative effects of nanotechnology in sunscreen, for example, can choose products that don’t rely on the technology. “If we’re going to see nanotechnology succeed, we’re going to have to address the scientific uncertainties, but we’ve also got to address the uncertainty in the minds of consumers,” he said.
Merzbacher likened nanotechnology to the Wild West, a new frontier characterized by a frenzy of research and sometimes hyperbolic news coverage. “Behind the wave of the frontier,” she said, “there’s order that follows. The agencies that have the responsibility for oversight are paying attention.”
The seminar was moderated by RFF Senior Fellow Terry Davies, who has also written a report, EPA and Nanotechnology: Oversight for the 21st Century, while working as a senior advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “This is an extraordinary technology; some people have referred to it as the second industrial revolution,” he said in his opening remarks. “Whether that’s hype or not, I’m not sure, but it gives you some idea of both the broadness and depth of the technology.”