Woodrow Wilson Center's Rejeski explores how nanotech may affect human health

As more companies use nanotechnology to improve their goods and services, researchers are taking a close look at potential health and environmental hazards that may accompany new innovation in the field. But many experts say safety research is trailing the fast pace of commercialization and want the U.S. EPA and other federal agencies to take a more prominent regulatory role. David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, explains the state of current research on nanotech, and how private companies and the federal government can shape public perception about this emerging industry.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is David Rejeski. He's the director of the project on emerging nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center. David thanks a lot for being here today.

David Rejeski: Glad to be here.

Brian Stempeck: Now your organization just did a major report. As we see nano tech coming on as an emerging field there's a lot of questions arising about the safety of these materials, how it might affect human health, affect the environment, things like that. And you came out with a report basically looking at what kind of research has been done so far. What did you find?

David Rejeski: Well, we basically created an inventory of all the research we could find, both in the federal government and also internationally. And we found about $30 million or so, plus or minus a few million, about 200 projects. We've gotten, I think, most of the U.S. research in here, as well as research from the E.U., from England, from Taiwan, from Denmark. It's not everything, but I think it's the first time people have actually been able to see what the pieces are. Up to this point there's been a huge debate on the number. Are we spending enough? So the governments in the U.S. have said we're spending about $38 million. Some people have said we should be spending $100 million. It's gone back and forth kind of like a tennis game. And what we've tried to do is create a chessboard so you can actually see all the pieces and begin to ask questions about how do we move the next bit of funding most effectively to fill any sort of research gaps? We really believe that the research is going to have to be addressed internationally and collaboratively. Both between governments and between government and industry to deal with all of the potential risks we might see over the next decade or two.

Brian Stempeck: Now speaking of a tennis game, you actually brought a pretty good example of a product that is using nanotechnology right now. Give us a sense on how this technology is being used.

David Rejeski: This is a Wilson tennis ball. It's actually on the market. There's probably about 600 or 700 products right now that actually are nano engineered. What's special about this ball is actually the lining. It's been engineered at a nano scale level so it leaks less air. It hasn't helped my game I can tell you, but people swear by these balls. And one of the interesting things this company is looking at it is what would happen if we put this same technology in tires? One of the problems we have obviously with tires is they become under inflated and they use a lot more gas because there's friction as well as there's safety issues. So this is an example potential of an emerging green technology that would have significant environmental benefits. Both in terms of gas savings and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Brian Stempeck: As we see products like these on the market already, is there concern that commercialization of nanotechnology is getting ahead of some of the safety research that needs to be done?

David Rejeski: Well I think it's important to realize that the regulatory system has to work as a whole system. There's probably six or seven agencies implicated in regulating the oversight of nanotechnology. That includes EPA, but it also includes the Food and Drug Administration because there are applications in the area of health care. Potentially the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you're going to see agricultural applications, food packaging applications. So I think the real challenge is will all these regs work? I sort of use the analogy, do we have a leak in the roof that we can patch or is there really a crack in the foundation? Are there much larger issues around the regulation of nanotechnology? One of the problems you find is -- and an awful lot of these regulations are based on us making some relationship between the weight of the material out there, the pollutant, and its toxicity. And with nano tech that doesn't work very well. What really counts with nanotechnology, because it's so small, is actually the surface chemistry, surface charge, and actually the structure of the material. We think about asbestos being a long thin fiber and that's what caused problems in the lung. So nanotechnology actually allows you to engineer very different structures and each one of those may have a different set of properties. So I think there is really some fundamental challenges to the oversight system. The other problem we'll have is it's hard to regulate what we can't monitor or measure. And right now it's very, very difficult to actually monitor or measure nano particles, either in air, water or soil. We could do it in a laboratory, but not easily outside of the laboratory.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think of funding is lagging behind here? I know you said the total right now is about $38 million. And to put that into perspective, there's about $9 billion of research funding going to nanotech in the entire industry wide. It seems like that's a very small number. Where do you think that number should be in terms of how much money industry and government are spending on nanotech safety research?

David Rejeski: Well again, I don't think it's a perfect number there. I think what we did with the inventories is we found some gaps. And one of the really interesting gaps we found was there was really almost no research on safety. And by safety we mean potential injury to humans that aren't related to disease. So for instance with nano particles, could they explode in the workplace and hurt people? That's the sort of thing. So there's almost no sort of research being done in that area. The other area we found very little being done was actually the lifecycle impacts. So what happens to this when it's been used up and ends up potentially in a landfill or something? So we're going to have to look at the risks and the benefits, both in the production phase when things are being used by consumers and also when they're disposed or recycled or remanufactured. So that was another area we found low amounts of funding on. So I think there's no real magic number. I think we need more. It's also doubtful given the fiscal constraints of the government that we're ever going to be able to double or triple that amount. So that's why we really think it's important to actually partner with other countries and with industry. We did that when we sequenced the human genome, you might remember. I don't think that's a perfect analogy here, but I think there's a real opportunity to actually work together with other countries to boost that amount up. Because I don't think it's realistic that the government or any single government is ever going to be able to have enough money here to deal with all the potential risks.

Brian Stempeck: Right now the EPA has been taking the lead on nanotech and investing in some of the research that needs to be done. Have they done enough? And I guess what do you expect to see from them and what kind of regulations would you like to see from EPA and from other agencies as this technology moves forward?

David Rejeski: Well the EPA, actually the amount of money they have for their research has been relatively small. They've had about $4 million to $6 million a year for the past four years. The first two years they were funding, actually researching, how to apply nanotechnology to environmental problems. How could we use it to actually solve environmental problems? For the past two years they've focused their research much more on what are the potential impacts? We think that's kind of a false dichotomy. What you'd like to be doing is sort of thinking about the implications while you're doing the applications research, not after the fact. So it's clear, I think, that there's probably a much greater need for research at EPA because that's their mission. Their mission is really to protect the environment. So I think more funding for EPA would be sort of part of what I'd like to see in the future.

Brian Stempeck: There's already been a couple of studies that have come out that have shown some problems with nanotech, some very small carbon molecules that are affecting say people's lungs is one concern. I know there's another that showed some damage that's being done to certain speed fish in a river. Is that worrisome for the industry as a whole? Is this indicative of a larger trend that we might be seeing in the next couple of years?

David Rejeski: I think it's indicative of the need to be a little bit more vigilant. I think you could say that about almost any emerging technology, whenever technologies come forward. I think this is a set of technologies you don't when to really get very smug or overconfident about. Because part of what you're trying to do actually is create whole new properties from things that we thought we knew a lot about. So the potential of being surprised here I think it is very high. It doesn't mean put a brake on the industry, but I think you have to do a lot more upfront due diligence. You really want to be very proactive in doing that.

Brian Stempeck: It seems like for nanotech there would be some lessons to be learned from genetically modified foods. This is basically types of food that we've seen a lot of resistance to from environmental groups, from consumers in Europe in particular. What lessons do you think there are to be learned from what's been happening with the GMOs?

David Rejeski: Well I think one of the most important lessons is just to talk honestly to the public about what's going on. We did some focus groups in June and we actually provided people in these groups with information about nanotech, the potential applications, who was in charge in the government in terms of regulating and oversight. And the interesting thing was that people almost overwhelmingly didn't want to stop the development of the technology. The more they learned about it actually the more they were excited about it. But they were very, very wary about industry or government being able to sort of self regulate. There was a fairly low trust actually in industry and government in terms of oversight. And they really wanted two things. It was really quite amazing. And these two things have actually come out in surveys in Canada and England. They wanted people to do more pre-market testing, which makes a lot of sense, rather than just putting this on the market do some diligence upfront because that's something they've learned with biotech and lots of other technologies. They introduced the products into the marketplace and then we find out later on that there's problems. And that's obviously not in the economic interest of most firms either. Another thing they wanted was just more transparency and disclosure. They wanted to be told what's going on. Is nanotech in these products? People in England tend to want labeling. The people that we worked with in the U.S. tended to just want to know more information. What's the government doing? What's the industry doing? So I think the two keys, I think for both -- the messages are clear, but I think both the industry and government is more pre-market testing. They're very concerned about environmental impacts and long-term impacts. And tell us what you're doing. Is this safe?

Brian Stempeck: Now has the industry been reacting to that? When we see a company, say like Wilson, introducing this tennis ball, are they doing this market research ahead of time to see what's happening to this product, as you said, once it goes into a landfill?

David Rejeski: No. I don't think there's been a lot of lifecycle analysis. The industry, I think at this point in time, hasn't talked much about nanotechnology. In fact the best example might be the iPod Nano, in terms of branding something with a nano name. But generally most people in the industry haven't spent a lot of time focusing on nanotechnology. I think the messages are very muddied. You see this in the cosmetic industry. There's a lot of cosmetics now that are nano engineered. And for the consumer it's very confusing. They talk about nano soames and cosmeceuticals and there's just a lot of jargon there. So I think there's also a lesson for industry in terms of the biotech debates, because they need to think very carefully about their marketing message. And the government I think also has to do a better job of getting out there and sort of engaging the public. The public really doesn't want to be lectured to. And I think that they're very, very perceptive in terms of figuring out are people trying to cover something up? They don't expect a risk-free future. I think they're willing to accept risks and deal with risks if we're open about the risks and also talk about what the benefits are so they can make some kind of trade off in their own mind.

Brian Stempeck: All right Dave, we're out of time. Thanks so much for coming on the show.

David Rejeski: Thank you.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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