"Many corporations are holding up development of products using nanotechnologies because they don't understand fully what the risks are," Andrew Maynard, Ph.D., chief science advisor for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Project on Emerging Technologies, told symposium attendees. "They are the smart ones, as they know that once they do understand and properly address the safety, health and environmental risks they will be ahead of the curve."

Even so, other companies are pushing on – despite the unknowns regarding nanotechnology's risks. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies lists more than 320 items in its nanotechnology consumer products inventory. According to the Woodrow Wilson Center, nanotechnology was incorporated into more than $30 billion in manufactured goods in 2005, and one estimate projects that by 2014, $2.6 trillion in global manufactured goods will incorporate nanotechnology.

"There are Real Risks"

Maynard's presentation focused on what is known about the risks of nano-structured materials and the steps needed to ensure the safety of the work force.

"There are real risks," Maynard said. "There is an urgent need to do more research. We need to identify the questions, get the answers and find the most effective routes to communicate those answers. For instance, we need to look into the toxicity, the exposure, doses and characterization of nanomaterials and educate, educate, educate. We have a long way to go."

Maynard, as noted in a previous Occupationalhazards.com article, is urging the U.S. government to invest at least $100 million over the next 2 years in "targeted risk research in order to begin to fill in our occupational safety knowledge gaps and to lay a strong, science-based foundation for safe nanotechnology workplaces." Currently, just $11 million of the U.S. government's $1 billion in annual nanotechnology research spending goes toward EHS research, according to Maynard.

"We don't know everything about nanomaterials, but we do know that there will always be new risks with new technology," Maynard said.

When it comes to the potential risks of nanotechnology, "[t]here are layers and layers of complexities."

"We need to manage this exposure, but how. Do we use the control banding concept or can we develop an exposure index?" Maynard said. "As of now I can say this: One, nano is now. Two, expect the unexpected – be aware that there may be unusual things happening. And three, we need good science so it is important that we all collaborate, collaborate, collaborate and find new ways of working together."