Sharon Friedman and Brenda Egolf published a research paper titled, A Longitudinal Study of Newspaper and Wire Service Coverage of Nanotechnology Risks, in a special nanotechnology-themed issue of Risk Analysis, November 2011 (the study is behind a paywall). The study was written up by Helen Carmichael in an article for RSC (Royal Society of Chemistry) Chemistry World,
A US study has found scant media coverage of the potential risks posed by nanotechnology, with many more articles extolling its future benefits.
Sharon Friedman and Brenda Egolf, from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, found the number of stories that mentioned risks averaged around just 37 per year in each country. Three main narratives prevailed – runaway technology, science-based studies and regulation – and journalists most often covered health risks, followed by environmental and societal risk issues. Regulation coverage was less frequent but increased over time.
The report concludes that given the many articles describing nanotechnology’s benefits and the average person’s minimal knowledge about the topic, we may be setting the stage for public distrust of nanotechnology in the event that a dangerous event should occur.
I’ve never been an enthusiast for the notion that discussing risks (or public engagement exercises) will act as a kind of prophylactic allowing us to avoid a public panic over one technology or other (my Jan. 15, 2009 posting on the topic). It appears I may have found a soul mate,
Robin Williams, director of the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh, UK, says that there is no proof that a greater discussion of the assumed risks in the media today will lead to nanotechnology being better accepted and understood in future. Efforts to outline nanotechnology’s potential risks or benefits ahead of time are beset by pitfalls and will not necessarily avert public controversy, he argues.
The more I investigate the more I realize how little is known about nanomaterials and nanoparticles. Michael Berger has just written a Nov. 24, 2011 article titled, Natural nanomaterials – they are everywhere, for Nanowerk where he discusses some current thinking about regulations based on size (e.g. European Commission definition of nanomaterials [my Oct. 18, 2011 posting] and Health Canada’s definition [my Oct. 24, 2011 posting]) and the growing realization that we have been surrounded by nanomaterials for quite some time,
“There is an inherent recognition in this definition that all sources of nanomaterials are important in evaluating the possible impact of nanoscale materials on human health and the environment; however, perhaps the greatest benefit to studying these materials will be in their ability to inform us about the manner in which nano-sized materials have been a part of our environment from the beginning.” So argue Mark R. Wiesner and Michael F. Hochella, Jr. and their team in a thought piece published in the November 22, 2011 online edition of ACS Nano (“Meditations on the Ubiquity and Mutability of Nano-Sized Materials in the Environment”). [article is behind a paywall]
Naturally occurring nanomaterials can be found everywhere in nature (fullerenes and graphene even have been discovered in space) and only with recent advances in instrumentation and metrology equipment are researchers beginning to locate, isolate, characterize and classify the vast range of their structural and chemical varieties.
The team concludes that “fundamental research is needed to adapt existing equilibrium models to account for the generation of nanomaterials from dissolved metals, the formation of nanoparticles from macroscopic objects, and to improve our understanding of how engineered nanomaterials may confound equilibrium modeling.”
These essays (Berger’s and Wiesner’s & Hochella’s) come in the wake of some research from the University of Oregon where scientists noted that we have been ingesting, by one means or another, silver and copper nanoparticles for centuries as we use silver and copper utensils which shed nanoparticles (my Oct. 25, 2011 posting). Hochella & Wiesner seem to be arguing that size in and of itself is not necessarily an issue. They do suggest that using a definition based on size alone means researchers will be able to better investigate engineered and naturally occurring (which are much more abundant than we had previously understood) nanomaterials.
I mention Berger’s article and the discussion about naturally occurring and engineered nanomaterials as proof that it’s going to be difficult to communicate risk to the public as Egolf and Friedman seem to be advocating when so much about nanotechnology is still not well understood. Nonetheless, I do believe that communicating about science and about emerging technologies (such as nanotechnology) is necessary.
One final note: there is a free article in the November 2011 issue of Risk Analysis, Envisioning Emerging Nanotechnologies: A Three-Year Panel Study of South Carolina Citizens by Susanna Priest, Thomas Lane, Ted Greenhalgh,Lindsey Jo Hand, and Victoria Kramer.