, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 47-56
Date: 22 Mar 2007

Nanotoxicology and Ethical Conditions for Informed Consent

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While their strength, electrical, optical, or magnetic properties are expected to contribute a trillion dollars in global commerce before 2015, nanomaterials also appear to pose threats to human health and safety. Nanotoxicology is the study of these threats. Do nanomaterial benefits exceed their risks? Should all nanomaterials be regulated? Currently nanotoxicologists cannot help answer these questions because too little is known about nanomaterials, because their properties differ from those of bulk materials having the same chemical composition, and because they differ so widely in their applications. Instead, this paper answers a preliminary ethical question: What nanotech policies are likely to contribute to society’s ability to give or withhold free informed consent to the potential risks associated with production and use of nanomaterials? This paper argues that at least four current policies appear to jeopardize the risk-disclosure condition that is required for informed consent. These are the funding problem, the conflict-of-interest problem, the labeling problem, and the extrapolation problem. Apart from future decisions on how to ethically make, use, and regulate nanomaterials, this paper argues that, at a minimum, these four policies must be modified. Government must spend greater monies on nanotoxicology; ensure independent nanotoxicology research; label consumer products containing nanomaterials; and avoid assuming that nanotoxicological properties are based merely on mass and chemical composition. Otherwise free informed consent to these new technologies and materials may be jeopardized.