February 13, 2006
Addressing Concerns About the Toxic
Potential of Nanoscale Materials
As nanoscale materials continue to advance toward widespread commercial use, there is near unanimous agreement among nanotechnology’s supporters and skeptics that there needs to be a concerted effort undertaken to understand the safety or toxicity of such materials. A paper published in the journal Science makes the case that a rational, science-based approach to nanotoxicology is feasible, and that such an approach should be developed and implemented now to ensure that future nanotechnology-based products are safe to manufacture and use.
Andre Nel, D.M.D., M.D., and colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, argue that particle toxicology is a mature science that has developed a wide variety of assays for addressing how materials of any size can cause lung injury. Such assays are immediately useful, both for measuring any toxicities associated with engineered nanomaterials and also for understanding how the physical and chemical properties of these new materials affect potential toxicities.
The authors of the Science paper also note that toxicologists have already developed assays capable of measuring a wide variety of biochemical mechanisms that are associated with toxicity of existing chemicals and materials. Again, these assays are suitable for immediate use with new engineered nanomaterials.
With experts predicting that there could be thousands of new nanomaterials reaching commercial markets over the next decade, developing a triage system to determine which materials should receive priority testing is a must. Nel and his colleagues comment that nanoscale sensors could prove critical in developing the high-throughput assay technologies that will be needed to keep up with the pace of nanoscale material development. The authors note that current toxicology screens can cost $2 million to $4 million per material and can take over three years to complete, which suggests that recently initiated efforts to develop methods that can predict toxicities based on the chemical and physical properties of a nanomaterial should receive priority funding.
This discussion appears in a paper titled, “Toxic potential of materials at the nanolevel.” An abstract is available at the journal’s website.