Nanotechnology has been touted as a transformative technology that would encompass a broad range of products and application areas and improve many aspects of human life. As nanotechnology matures, the complexity of its main product, nanomaterials, increases. Four generations of nanomaterials have been defined by a World Technology Evaluation Center (WTEC) Report, namely, passive nanomaterials, active nanomaterials, integrated nanosystems, and molecular nanosystems. According to the Woodrow Wilson Nanotechnology Consumer Product Inventory, there are over 1000 self-identified nano-enabled consumer products on the market. Most of these products are based on first-generation passive nanomaterials. Limited understanding of passive nanomaterial hazards has challenged traditional occupational health risk assessment and management approaches. New approaches including suggestions for the development and adoption of proactive approaches to nanotechnology risk assessment and control have been proposed. Unlike reactive approaches, where risk control measures are applied to well characterized hazards, proactive or anticipatory approaches aim at minimizing risks of hazards before they are fully characterized. More recently, a greater proportion of research and development activities in the field of nanotechnology is being devoted to the second-generation nanomaterials, called active nanomaterials. While occupational safety and health issues arising from passive nanomaterials have been widely discussed and studied, there have been few studies of the occupational safety and health issues pertaining to active nanomaterials and none for nanosystems. Since active nanomaterials and nanosystems may present more complex health risks than passive nanomaterials, risk assessment studies specifically directed at these materials in the workplace need to be funded and conducted. It was recognized that nanotechnology and advanced nanomaterials raise issues that are more complex and far-reaching than many other innovations. Therefore, approaches to the overall risk governance of emerging technologies, which can be defined as a comprehensive oversight framework encompassing regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to risk assessment and risk management, may need to be validated and modified as appropriate. In this Commentary, some of the complex issues pertaining to the occupational safety and health risk implications of active nanomaterials and nanosystems are explored.
Vladimir Murashov, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 395. E Street SW, Washington, DC 20201