Tuesday, March 21, 2006

New European study: The importance of understanding nano … and the public

Swissinfo.com just reported on a study by researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, ETH) today on the risks and opportunities of nanotechnology. The study examined research practices and opinions of researchers in 32 companies in Switzerland and Germany. The researchers also conducted a national survey of almost 900 Swiss citizens on their views of nanotech and nanotech regulations.

I will post more specific details once I have seen the report. But here are a few interesting findings, based on the swissinfo.com report:

“The findings concluded that people are happy to use products such as skis, but were not so keen to consume nanoparticles or put them on their skin in the form of sun lotion or cosmetics.

The science of nanotechnology could founder on the same negative publicity that dogged genetics unless more is done to assess risks, a Swiss report warns.

Researchers from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich found a lack of guidelines and effort to identify potential side effects, but the Swiss authorities are working to redress the problem.”
And given the lack of federal guidelines, the following findings are not very surprising:

“Only two of the 32 companies in Switzerland and Germany surveyed by the institute had investigated the effects of absorption of nanoparticles by living organisms. Three-quarters admitted they had not carried out risk assessments on research or on their products.

One in five had examined whether products containing nanoparticles could be toxic while a quarter did not know whether tests had been carried out.”

The other interesting aspect of this study, summarized in a separate press release on ETH’s web site: NGOs apparently have dropped the ball on this so far:

“In order to build trust, however, more information is needed–and this is where the stumbling block lies. To be sure, the view of the actors in the nano business is that it is the responsibility of the media, NGOs and governing bodies to inform the population. In reality, however, they are not fulfilling this function. ‘The NGOs don't seem to have discovered this theme, yet’ surmises [Arnim] Wiek [at ETH]. Switzerland's Federal Office for Public Health (BAG) and the Swiss Agency for the Environment (BAFU) are currently working on the construction of a new information platform on nano-technology.”

Michael Siegrist, an expert on risk perceptions and trust related to new technologies and a senior researcher at the ETH Zurich, summarized the findings on swissinfo.com:

“‘We found that lay people perceived more risks than the experts,’ he said: ‘The problem with this is that we might end up in the same situation as we had with gene technology.’

Siegrist believes communication and targeted marketing are the keys to the industry's success.

‘If the industry resists making claims they cannot fulfil and provides applications that are useful to consumers, then we could avoid the problems we had with GM [genetically modified] food,’ he said.

‘People are more prepared to accept potential risks of mobile phones than they are with GM tomatoes that have a longer shelf life.’”