The International Council on Nanotechnology

NanoEHS: Preaching to the Choir or Missionary Work in Hostile Territory?

I spent most of yesterday in a dimly lit room of Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center, attending the EHS track of the NSTI Nanotech 2009 conference, for which I organized the afternoon session on workplace practices. I have done this kind of thing before for NSTI, having put together a session on Nanotechnology and Society for the 2005 meeting in Anaheim. What a difference four years makes.

Then: Keynotes focused on enormous potential of nanotech to solve societal problems.
Now: Keynote speaker from Bayer Materials Science spent much of his time talking about safety, minimizing exposure and engineering controls before getting to Baytubes.

Then: The EHS session was billed as a special symposium and was a hodgepodge of science, standards, regulation and policy.
Now: The EHS session was a stand-alone track and there were enough submissions to have separate sessions on toxicology, workplace practices and regulatory/policy issues.

Then: This session garnered a smallish crowd.
Now: The room was packed for toxicology and full enough for occupational practices.

Then: The crowd was excited about nanotech's potential but curious about why we needed to discuss "societal" impacts.
Now: The attendees were savvy about the complexity of issues associated with understanding nanomaterials' impacts.

On that last point, I was pleased to hear attendees pressing the toxicology speakers during Q&A to be explicit about what type of nanomaterials were tested, what dose metrics were employed, whether residual metal particles were present, etc. The questions demonstrated a level of sophistication not seen back in 2005 when most people wanted to know: Are these things dangerous or not?

OK so one person asked Val Vallyathan, a NIOSH researcher talking about the nanotube-asbestos comparison, the naive question, "So, are carbon nanotubes 'the next asbestos' or not?" To which he replied, "The current studies are inconclusive. We can't say without systematic studies varying the dose, animal model, etc."

I know there are now whole meetings devoted to nanoEHS research, and that societies such as SOT are offering extended tracks on nanotoxicology. One of my colleagues in the nanoEHS space said that he goes to a lot of these meetings where he feels like he's preaching to the choir. The NSTI meeting has always had a more optimistic, business development, applications orientation where raising safety issues can feel more like missionary work in hostile territory. So seeing the EHS issue penetrate the NSTI meeting to this extent leads me to the conclusion that these communities are finally coming together in a way that bodes well for nanomaterial stewardship.
Back to the meeting!

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