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Major Scientific Journal Warns of Hazards of Nanotechnology

WASHINGTON, D.C.Society is in danger of squandering the powerful potential of nanotechnology due to a lack of clear information about its risks, conclude 14 top international scientists in a major paper published in the November 16th issue of the journal Nature. The paper, Safe Handling of Nanotechnology, identifies Five Grand Challenges for research on nanotechnology risk that must be met if the technology is to reach its full promise.

The spectre of possible harm - whether real or imagined - threatens to slow the development of nanotechnology unless sound, independent and authoritative information is developed on what the risks are, and how to avoid them, said Andrew Maynard, the papers lead author and chief science advisor with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, and his co-authors write.

We are running out of time to get it right. Last year, more than $32 billion in products containing nano-materials were sold globally. By 2014, Lux Research estimates that $2.6 trillion in manufactured goods will incorporate nanotechnology, asserts Maynard. If the public loses confidence in the commitment of governments, business, and the science community to conduct sound and systematic research into possible risks, then the enormous potential of nanotechnology will be squandered. We cannot let that happen.

Fears over the possible dangers of some nanotechnologies may be exaggerated, but they are not necessarily unfounded, say the authors. Recent studies examining the toxicity of engineered nanomaterials in cell cultures and animals have shown that size, surface area, surface chemistry, solubility and possibly shape, all play a role in determining the potential for nanomaterials to cause harm.

The paper outlines Five Grand Challenges to stimulate research that is imaginative, innovative, timely and above all relevant to the safety of nanotechnology. They include the development of:

   1. instruments to assess environmental exposure to nanomaterials

   2. methods to evaluate the toxicity of nanomaterials

   3. models for predicting the potential impact of new, engineered nanomaterials

   4. ways of evaluating the impact of nanomaterials across their life cycle, and

   5. strategic programs to enable risk-focused research

It is generally accepted that, in principle, some nanomaterials may have the potential to cause harm to people and the environment, according to the authors. Yet research into understanding, managing, and preventing risk often has a low priority in the competitive worlds of intellectual property, research funding and technology development.

Maynard and his co-authors conclude that if the global research community can take advantage [of the research opportunities before us] and rise to the challenges we have set, then we can surely look forward to the advent of safe nanotechnologies.

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