2016 marks the 10 year anniversary of SAFENANO as a Centre of Excellence in Nanosafety. When I was first approached by the UK Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in 2004, their mandate to the IOM was to de-risk the emerging UK nanotechnology industry. These were the early days of what would become large scale investment nanotechnology in the UK (including the 22 nanotechnology centres of excellence of which SAFENANO was one) and by governments in Europe, US and around the world. It was also the time of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report "Nanotechnologies and Nanosciences: Opportunities and Uncertainties". This landmark publication in 2004 was one of the first internationally which drew together emerging concerns about nanotechnology risk.
Working with colleagues at IOM and Napier University, most notably Lang Tran, Bryony Ross and Vicki Stone, we began work to develop what has come to be the SAFENANO Centre of Excellence. In 2006, we launched the SAFENANO.org website, which was at that time and remains today a unique and comprehensive information resource in nanotechnology safety. Two years later we launched our multi-disciplinary consultancy and research services incorporating disciplines across the risk assessment paradigm incorporating hazard characterisation, exposure assessment, toxicology, risk assessment and risk management. Our mission then and now being to provide the highest quality expertise to help nanotechnology emerge and develop on a safe and sustainable basis, maximising its commercial potential, through a continuous development and improvement of our knowledge, equipment and practice. One of the challenges at that time, was the lack of reliable information about both the toxicology of these materials and the extent to which people or the environment are or would be exposed. There was also a great deal of uncertainty, some of which remains today and is influenced by the inherent diversity in the morphology and properties of nanoscale form of substances particularly carbon nanomaterials, regarding the different aspects of both hazard and exposure and how these two contribute to risks.
In the early years of SAFENANO, we carried out a series of reviews for a number of UK government departments and their agencies including HSE, DEFRA, the Environment Agency and Food Standards Agency. These reviews were focused on gathering and interpreting existing and emerging evidence and stakeholder engagement to form consensus views. They were subsequently used by the UK government departments as part of their coordinated response to the Royal Society Report. In parallel to these activities, the growing SAFENANO team developed and launched in 2007 a suite of lab- and field-based scientific services to support UK manufacturing and R&D across industry and academic sectors. These included guidance for safe working practices, workplace assessments, toxicology testing, risk assessment and training. Today the SAFENANO team delivers its unique range of multidisciplinary services globally to support the use and adoption of nanotechnology in a safe and sustainable way.
The SAFENANO team was also active in the European arena. Right from the start IOM had been one of the first movers in the development of a series of major European collaborative projects, funded by the European Commission’s Framework Programmes (FP6, FP7) for research, aimed at developing and understanding the key science behind nanotechnology risk issues amongst many other topics. These core science projects sought to address some of the fundamental questions on the toxicity of nanoparticles and the routes of exposure. Drawing of the capabilities of the SAFENANO team we developed a new model to support a wide variety of innovation-led research: pro-actively assessing and managing risk in an integrated way supporting the main innovation pathway focused on developing new materials, processes or products utilising nanotechnology. The key elements involve looking at the potential risks at each stage of the innovation process, design, material synthesis and manufacture, product incorporation, product use and end of life and to consider in each stage, possible exposures to people and the environment, the toxicity of the materials used, identification and quantification of the risks and to put in place effective measures to manage those risks. Many such projects have been carried out over the last 10 years. Such thinking has taken hold across much of the innovation process at least in Europe and it is now the norm that proactive consideration of risks to health and the environment are specifically identified in many innovation research topics.
In 2012, we extended our activities into Asia with the launch of IOM Singapore which has SAFENANO as a major theme within our service delivery there. Our work there has included research for government departments (PUB and MOM), support to industry and the development of training.
The landscape has changed substantially over the last 10 years, but major challenges remain. The extensive worldwide research effort has resulted in the generation of an enormous quantity of scientific data on toxicology, exposure and risk. Progress has been made on important topics, for example we now understand quite well the different toxicity of types of carbon nanotubes (CNT) and the mechanisms which govern effects. We are now able to a much greater degree to group different nanoparticles according to the level of hazard that they present, based on physico-chemical properties. We also understand how to assess the likelihood of release of nanoparticles into the air for different scenarios across the value chain and how to sample and measure them in the air if release occurs. We have also developed guidance tools and such as control banding which can be used to define appropriable methods to manage the risks.
There are many examples of responsible industry practice addressing these risk issues in a proactive way. Evidence-based proportional governance has emerged in a number of regions and sectors most notably in Europe where specific guidance pertaining to nanomaterials in relation to chemicals regulation such as REACH has now been published (following on from specific regulatory requirements for cosmetics and food). And yet there are many other examples where government, academia and industry have still to fully recognise the extent of the risk issues and have not yet put in place the necessary steps to manage them effectively. There are multiple reasons for this but one of them may well be that as with many aspects of science much of this evidence base is considered to be contradictory, or has a narrow or irrelevant focus, or can be subject to misinterpretation.
All of this points back to SAFENANO’s original mission to gather, analyse and interpret the emerging evidence on nanotechnology risk and suggests that it is as relevant today as it was 10 years ago. The major challenge going forward is to ensure that the key aspects of research and best practice finds its way into the philosophy underpinning responsible innovation and effective governance of nanotechnology and other emerging technologies where uncertainty and risk are at play. We therefore continue on our mission.