EH&S Concerns in Nano Industry

March 3, 2012

Master’s Group Project Leads to Scholarly Paper
Global survey reveals disturbing lack of environmental health and safety practices in nanomaterials industry

All is not right on the environmental health and safety (EH&S) front of the nanotechnology industry, according to a paper by researchers affiliated with the NSF Center for Nanotechnology and Society (CNS) at UCSB and the UC Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (UC CEIN), which appeared in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research (14-749) and grew out of a 2010 Bren Master’s Group Project.

The authors of “Governance implications of nanomaterials companies’ inconsistent risk perceptions and safety practices” – Bren professor Patricia Holden; Bren alumni and Group Project members Lynn Baumgartner, Benjamin Carr, Allison Fish, and John Meyerhofer (all MESM 2010); lead author and UCSB Department of Sociology PhD student Cassandra Engeman; CNS director Barbara Herr Harthorn; and University of British Columbia professor Terre Satterfield – found that industry expansion is outpacing research into the toxicology of nanoparticles and the development of best practices for environmental health and safety.

That, say the authors, puts an even greater importance on the development of sound, science-based industry EH&S practices.

“Because of the high volume of ENMs inherent to industrial operations compared to [the number of] research laboratories, private nanomaterials manufacturers are on the frontlines of EH&S implementation,” they say. “How they regard and handle these materials, and their associated views and actions have significant potential for environmental and human health impacts.”

The Group Project survey is the first, according to the paper, “to take a global approach to surveying safety practices in the nanotechnology industry, with an exclusive focus on private ENM companies to understand how they are adapting workplace and environmental practices for the safe development of nanotechnology.”

The 65-question survey was sent to 500 companies worldwide, with completed surveys being received from 78 companies in 14 nations. The article described the following key findings:

  • Companies reported relatively high levels of uncertainty and/or perceived risk with regard to engineered nano-materials (ENMs); however, those perceptions were not accompanied by expected risk-avoidant practices or preferences for regulatory oversight.
  • A majority of companies indicated ‘‘lack of information’’ as a significant impediment to implementing nano-specific safety practices.
  • Practices that companies did report were inconsistent with widely available guidance.
    Reported nano-specific health and safety programs were narrow in scope.

“Taken together, these findings indicate that health and safety guidance is not reaching industry,” the authors write. “While industry leaders’ reluctance toward regulation might be expected, their own reported unsafe practices and recognition of possible risks suggest [that] a more top-down approach from regulators is needed to protect workers and the environment.”

According to Holden, who served as faculty advisor to an earlier Bren Master’s Group Project team (class of 2006) that conducted a similar survey, industry respondents at that time indicated they lacked sufficient information to put develop and implement EH&S guidelines.

“Now, six years later, they have a lot more information, but they’re not acting on it,” says Holden. “It’s time to regulate.”

The value of products manufactured by the nanotechnology industry is projected to be worth $2.6 trillion by 2013, more than a ten-fold leap from the $224 billion in 2009. Despite that rapid growth, many ENMs remain uncharacterized, according to the authors, who add, “There is no mandatory nano-specific regulation of safe-handling practices,” though some nations do require companies to report use of specific ENMs and their EH&S practices.

Read the full paper