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Nano Safety Alert

Concerns over the safety and environmental impact of nanomaterials mustn’t be ignored.

Technology Review has invited members of the 2006 TR35 to tell us about their hopes for research in 2007. Seth Coe-Sullivan explains why he feels that nanotoxicity studies are critical in order for the field to thrive. Coe-Sullivan is chief technology officer of QD Vision, a Watertown, Massachusetts-based startup that is developing novel displays that use quantum dots.

Nanomaterials, and my particular obsession, quantum dots (nanocrystals that shine different colors depending on their size), are at a critical time in their development and commercialization. Decades of research have brought these materials to a stage where they can provide real value to the world; they are coming to market in a wide range of products, from wrinkle-free pants to displays for mobile devices. However, worker safety, consumer health, and the environmental impacts of such materials have to a large degree been ignored.

Some research does exist. NIOSH [National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health] has an active program for studying the safe handling of nanomaterials in the workplace. Nanotoxicity studies of carbon-based materials as well as quantum dots have been conducted, but the overwhelming conclusion is that more work is needed. All nanomaterials are not created equal and will clearly span the gamut from toxic to benign. If research helps us understand the root causes of toxicity in these materials, then safer materials can be engineered. Putting real data on toxicity into the iterative design cycle for these materials has the potential to save human lives as well as development dollars.

This year will be a critical one for setting public perception of “nano” in the United States and abroad. The EPA ruling that silver nanoparticles require separate environmental screening and classification is likely the first of many such decisions to come. Industry consortiums, environmental groups, and individual corporations need to take concrete action to determine the safety of materials and products before they are on the market. I believe that nanomaterials can be safe for consumers and the environment, but industry should recognize that the public is unlikely to give them a second chance, should we get it wrong the first time. The environment must come first, or nanomaterials will simply be asbestos writ small.

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