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Nanotechnology and precautionary risk management

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Tom Counsell.

NOTE: Rescheduled from Tuesday 5th.

As a new and promising technology, nanotechnology needs to learn form the experience of past innovation including nuclear power and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). This experience shows that it is essential to be proactive in managing risks and responding to possible public concern over these risks. This paper reviews how this might be achieved. To start with, there is a need to establish and quantify, however approximately, what the real advantages might be in deploying nanotechnology, particularly in electromechanical and energy conversion devices. This can be achieved by Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), and existing LCA methodology should be capable of establishing whether the benefits of using nanotechnology outweigh the resources used to produce engineered nanomaterials. More uncertainty surrounds the possible impacts on human health and the environment of using engineered nanomaterials. There is reason to think, and some limited evidence, that nanoparticles can have harmful effects on humans and on non-human organisms. This argues for a precautionary approach to health and environmental risk management. This contribution will explore what this might mean. It implies a presumption against applications which would deliberately release nanoparticles into the environment. It also implies that manufactured products incorporating nanomaterials should be subject to strict regulation of how they are to be handled at the ends of their service lives. The scope for managing risks by treating nanomaterials as new chemicals under something like the European REACH regime is explored. Precaution could perhaps be achieved by strengthening the European Directive on end-of-life management (particularly the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment – WEEE - Directive); the implications and practicality of this approach are explored.

This talk is part of the ELCF - Engineering for a Low Carbon Future (seminar series) series.

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