Governance implications of nanomaterials companies’ inconsistent risk perceptions and safety practices

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Current research on the nanotechnology industry indicates its downstream expansion at a rapid pace, while toxicological research and best practices for environmental health and safety are still being developed. Companies that use and/or produce engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) have enormous potential to influence safe-handling practices for ENMs across the product life cycle. Knowledge of both industry practices and leaders’ perceptions of risk is vital for understanding how companies will act to control potential environmental and health risks. This article reports results from a new international survey of nanomaterials companies in 14 countries. In this survey, company participants reported relatively high levels of uncertainty and/or perceived risk with regard to ENMs. However, these perspectives were not accompanied by expected risk-avoidant practices or preferences for regulatory oversight. A majority of companies indicated “lack of information” as a significant impediment to implementing nano-specific safety practices, but they also reported practices that were inconsistent with widely available guidance. Additionally, in the absence of safe-handling regulations, companies reported nano-specific health and safety programs that were narrow in scope. Taken together, these findings indicate that health and safety guidance is not reaching industry. While industry leaders’ reluctance toward regulation might be expected, their own reported unsafe practices and recognition of possible risks suggest a more top-down approach from regulators is needed to protect workers and the environment.

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This work was supported by Coop. Agreement DBI-0830117 from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the University of California Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology; and by Coop. Agreements SES 0531184 and SES 093809 from the NSF to the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in the material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF or the EPA. This work has not been subjected to EPA review and no official endorsement should be inferred. The authors thank the anonymous survey participants who made this study possible. The authors also thank S. Anderson, R. Appelbaum, J. Conti, M. Delmas, S. Frederick, Y. Motoyama, and J. Youtie for their contributions to this study. Representatives from government and industry also provided helpful feedback on the survey instrument and references for participation: M. Ata, C. Geraci, M. Hull, F. Klaessig, K. Kulinowski, K.W. Lee, and M. Sekiya. Y. Ge, S. Werth, and Q. Yang provided translation services. The authors also acknowledge the thoughtful and excellent advice of two anonymous reviewers.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Barbara Herr Harthorn.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

The table in Online Resource 1 displays results from an exploratory factor analysis of scaled responses to seven statements in the survey to determine underlying factors that influence participants’ responses. One underlying factor is participants’ preference for autonomy from regulatory agencies. (PDF 253 kb)

The table in Online Resource 2 demonstrates a significant relationship between use of a nano-specific health and safety program and a general health and safety program but little difference in responses (PDF 284 kb)

Table 1 in Online Resource 3 shows the significant relationship between reported use of nano-specific EH&S programs and reported use of two practices: 1) monitoring the workplace for nanoparticles, and 2) using respirators. Table 2 in Online Resource 3 shows the significant relationship between reported use of nano-specific waste programs and reported use of a nano-specific health and safety programs. Table 3 in Online Resource 3 shows the significant relationship between reports of three types of waste-handling practices and the use of nano-specific health and safety programs. (PDF 300 kb)

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Engeman, C.D., Baumgartner, L., Carr, B.M. et al. Governance implications of nanomaterials companies’ inconsistent risk perceptions and safety practices. J Nanopart Res 14, 749 (2012).

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  • Environmental health and safety (EH&S) practices
  • Risk perception
  • Regulation
  • Government guidance
  • Worker safety