Friday, February 16, 2007


I am working on a new article and am sharing the following draft. It was the basis for a NIRT I designed, recruited, wrote and submitted. The following preceded some of the earlier material I wrote on risk perception and communication late last year.


Intuitive toxicology, hereafter referred to as ITOX, is much more than a clever term. It is an extension of some of the previous work done by social psychologists. It refers to how an inexpert or lay audience comprehends and reacts differently to expert information, in this case quantitative toxicology data.

Experts tend to discuss risks in terms of assessment and management. They solicit and collect data on hazards based on vitro and in vivo studies. Experts pair these findings to dosage and exposure information of all sorts, some based on observation and others on supposition. In turn, they develop a risk assessment.

Next, we have management. Having determined that a hazard is present, experts suggest better practices be adopted to reduce exposure or if that is impractical to avoid the hazard altogether. Having reduced the risks involved, experts assume the people affected will react rationally and applaud the experts for their hard work and live their lives a little safer.

Risk management is essential to protect workers when producing nanoparticles. However, we do not have sufficient data to determine life cycle risk assessment at this time hence the lay persons (hereafter referred to as the public) may be exposed to toxicological effects for many applications of nanoscience will impact consumables such as food products. In addition, health professionals intend to use nanotechnology to detect, diagnose, image, and treat a number of physical disorders and may expose the public to nanoparticles.

“[T]he public reliably perceives a negative relationship between hazards’ risks and benefits, despite their being no relationship or, if anything, a positive relationship between many hazard’s risk and benefits in the external environment” (Finucane 2001). The reliability of this phenomenon provides hope to the risk communicator. The public is not acting irrationally, they are acting non-rationally and non-rational calculi can be represented algorithmically.

The problem for experts, regulators, business and industry, and policy makers is that the public uses a non-rational calculus based on a matrix of attitude and beliefs (hereafter referred to as values) to decide risk issues and current risk assessment algorithms do not include these non-rational variables. Given one of the first hurtles confronting the nation in applied nanoscience may involve human and ecological toxicity, we must develop a procedure or set of procedures that will help the public to decide whether the nascent industry is acting in the public’s interest and this may include more creative and sustained efforts toward public inclusion.

The public needs to be able take the information at their disposal and draw their own conclusions and that process is very complicated especially when intermediaries become involved, such as non-governmental organizations and the media. However, once we establish some baseline data and employ a series of models that take full advantage of risk perception research on nanotechnology, we will be able to better understand the phenomena at play and may be able to build communication algorithms that may be amenable to all parties involved.

Nanotechnology has demonstrated great promise in many areas. For government and industry to continue to research and develop new products, the public will need to support government spending, buy consumer products, and accept the net benefits of nanotechnology. Teams of stakeholders, including regulators, industry, academia, and others, will need to be in the forefront of efforts to communicate risk information about nanotechnology.

We have already seen the media interest in negative events associated with nano-products, such as the Magic Nano debacle, the waste treatment concerns associated with Samsung’s NanoSilver washers, the ICTA and FOE’s petition to the FDA, etc. The media can both amplify and attenuate technological events. They have demonstrated a propensity for exaggeration and hyperbole as a means for increasing readership and viewership. Depending on the media to portray the objective risk values associated with nanotechnology is a fool’s game especially when what we think we know about media may have changed as the media has changed tremendously over the last decade.

As such this grant proposal is suggesting we engage in social science research which should run parallel to the toxicology research on nanoparticles. This small investment is an important partner to the environmental health and safety research currently being undertaken. As data on toxicology surfaces, it would be fortuitous if we had a strategy on engaging the public which is based on something other than supposition and educated guesses.

Some initial work in this area is currently being done at a very general level as part of the two Centers for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University and at the University of California-Santa Barbara. In particular, one of the CNS-ASU research teams is examining impacts of media coverage on public perceptions of risks and benefits of nanotechnology. This research, however, is concerned with the broader societal processes surrounding media and the public, and less with the more immediate concerns about toxicity, regulation, and public input.


The term intuitive toxicology was first used by Neil, Malmfors and Slovic (1994) and Slovic, Malmfors, Krewski, Mertz, Heil & Bartlett (1995) when they examined both expert and public judgments of chemical risks here and in Canada. Cass Sunstein used the term as well in his book Risk and Reason (2002). “Intuitive toxicology refers to the assignment of risk which involves biases that may exclude both probabilities and assessments of hazards quantified by empirical research” (Berube 2006, p. 302).

People have relied on different senses in determining risk. A disturbing example involved the workers at Bhopal when they contextualized the technology that ravaged the city. Workers responded to malfunctions of the valve and alarm system by relying on their sense of smell. “Tragically, this early warning mechanism proved completely ineffectual against the runaway reaction that precipitated the disaster” (Jasanoff 1993, p. 126). Put simply, different assumptions, conceptions, values, and so forth underlie the discrepancy between experts and public views about chemical risks. Whether one of our primary senses is involved or not, the public may perceive risks intuitively rather than objectively

There is a growing body of research indicating that inhalation of nanoparticles may be problematic in terms of lesions in the lung and transportation of particles to other parts of the body, such as the brain or even mitochondria in cells, where free radicals may cause additional problems. The ingestion of nanoparticles associated with nano-pharmaceuticals, food additives, and so on provides an additional exposure route. There is even some evidence suggesting topically applied nanoparticles, such as nanotitania, might pass through the dermis and affect the circulatory and lymphatic systems. In addition, there is growing evidence some nanoparticles might be toxic to bacteria and small life forms at the bottom of the aquatic food chain as well as larger species, such as fish. We still know very little about life cycle implications, from the waste stream issues associated with production to the disposal implications of nanoparticles embedded into other materials, such as from incineration (see Berube 2006, chapter 6).

It is our assumption one of the first major hurtles for applied nanoscience will involve resolving some of the toxicological challenges. While free nanoparticles seem more problematic that nanoparticles in a matrix, we are not yet able to guarantee once embedded they will remain so through the life cycle of the product, hence public exposure is not foreclosed. More importantly, intentional consumption of nanoparticles in topical applications, through ingestion or injection, etc. could expose the public even more so.

As such, we concur a better understanding of how to communicate with the public and how to enhance their understanding of concerns about the toxicity of nanoparticles is called for especially given apprehensions expressed by many critics that should a nano-product prove dangerous, a contagion phenomenon may occur affecting other nano-products souring consumer interest. Justified or not, a crisis of this sort could be amplified by the media and even some public interest groups which might threaten continuing public financial support for government related support for research and development in nanotechnology.

INPUT as I move to a more formal manuscript would be welcomed.

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