Category: Nanotoxicology

If you are not already familiar with Ron Wernette and his excellent blog, I recommend you add it to your nanolinks at

The blog keeps track of developments and learning opportunities in the field and is a perfect complement to our blog, as the blog’s mission statement demonstrates:

“The Nanotort Law Blog aims to be a useful resource for lawyers and risk managers. It will help you stay abreast of the current state of hazard assessment knowledge, pertinent governmental regulation, industry and NGO standards and guidelines, and other important information germane to environmental, health, and safety risks and potential liabilities. The Nanotort Law Blog will also offer ideas and links to other helpful resources to help you monitor, understand and manage the potential – and as yet unkown – liability risks of Nanotechnologies. “

It is safe to say that the current state of nanotech litigation is embryonic.  There are only a handful of cases dealing with the validity of rules governing nanomaterials, and the results are
resoundingly similar – deference to the rule maker.  In Kennecott Greens Creek Mining Co. v. Mine Safety and Health Admin., 476 F.3d 94, 946 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (a three year old case that accurately represents the issue in the few cases brought before the courts), judicial review was sought regarding three regulations promulgated by MSHA. Specifically, the rules were implemented to require mining operations to utilize new engines that reduced the emission of diesel particulate matter, but it was argued that those same engines produced high levels of nanoparticle emissions  in the process.  On appeal, the court disagreed with the mine owners and took a complete deferential approach because the risks associated with nanoparticles, at this point, are speculative at best until further developments.

We should expect to see similar types of cases with the same results for some time or until there is solid proof of a substantial problem.

In June 2009, the EPA Nanomaterial Research Strategy released a list of eight questions that need to be considered to determine the risks involved with nanotechnology and quite possibly could become the nexus for non-deferential judicial opinions in the future.  Kristine L. Roberts, Nanotechnology and the Future of Litigation, LITIGATION NEWS,
Winter 2010, at 6, 8.  The list on page eight includes the following inquiries:

1) What advances in technology must occur to detect and quantify nanomaterials in the environment and biological material?
2) What are the major environmental impacts?
3) What are the exposure risks?
4) What are the effects on our health?
5) What are the ecological effects?
6) How many risk assessment approaches need to be amended/created?
7) Which nanomaterials have a high potential for release?
8)Can manufactured nanomaterials be utilized in a sustainable manner?

This list, at first glance, seems like a blunt tool when compared to the enormity of what it is attempting to procure.  However, this is one of the first proactive steps with regard to whom is going to be accountable for what in future ligation involving nanotechnology – litigation that should include more applicable standards based on
concrete information instead of automatic deference due to lack of knowledge.

In the call for studies on the health and safety of nanoparticles in various uses, it is easy to overlook important questions about what the studies mean.  Does a study demonstrating what may be considered an adverse outcome provide a basis for legal action?  The complex answer is, “Sometimes yes and sometimes no,” or in the words of every law professor, “It depends.”

Let’s take a look a highly publicized study published in late 2009.  See Trouiller et al., Titanium Dioxide Nanoparticles Induce DNA Damage and Genetic Instability In vivo in Mice, CANCER RES. 2009; 69: (22), Nov. 15, 2009.  Researchers from UCLA conducted a study in vivo on mice to test the effects of the titanium dioxide nanoparticles, regularly used in many consumer products, including cosmetics (especially sunblocks), food coloring, toothpaste, and paint.  The researchers herald their study as the first in vivo study to demonstrate a connection between the particular substance and genetic harm.  Previous in vitro studies, they say, produced mixed results and by their very nature did not involve living tissue.

First, a word about how the law views in vitro and in vivo studies.  In vitro studies, such as the Ames test, test the effects of chemicals on bacteria or other cells in a laboratory dish, looking for genetic mutations.  These studies are sometimes offered in a legal setting to suggest that exposure to the substance is carcinogenic in human, on the theory that somatic cell mutations lead to uncontrolled cell reproduction and, ultimately, cancer.  In vivo studies compare laboratory animals exposed to a particular substance to a control group that was not exposed, looking for differences in outcomes between the two groups.  What both types of studies have in common is that they do not involve humans.  As a result, they also have in common the need to extrapolate from the test data to predictable results in humans, a process that is speculative.  In other words, both studies fall short of demonstrating exactly what will happen when humans are exposed to the substance.  But both are relatively fast, inexpensive, and do not involve the ethical dilemmas of testing on humans.

Courts bristle when plaintiffs seek to introduce this kind of evidence, without anything else, in personal injury litigation as proof that exposure to a particular substance caused their illnesses.  The role of courts in determining what evidence is admissible under the rules of evidence is designed to keep frivolous suits from consuming resources and from reaching juries, which might be more impressionable than the court.  Regulators are less constrained than courts, however.  The role of government regulators is circumscribed by the legislation giving them authority.

In the scheme of things, the law prefers in vivo studies to in vitro studies because in vivo studies demonstrate some action of the substance on mammalian living tissue.  But both types of studies are a distant second to epidemiological studies on human populations.  Such statistical studies of risk factors examine groups of humans to determine the strength of relationships between exposures and outcomes.  But even they do not examine the direct impact of the substance on human tissues.

All scientific and statistical studies used to demonstrate carcinogenicity serve to demonstrate the difficulty the law has with understanding and using the studies to make legal decisions.  In the important U.S. Supreme Court case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993), in which the Court provided guidance on determining the reliability of scientific studies in the federal courts (in the context of a toxic torts case involving the prescription drug Bendectin), the Court had the following to say about the distinctions between science and litigation:

[T]here are important differences between the quest for truth in the courtroom and the quest for truth in the laboratory. Scientific conclusions are subject to perpetual revision. Law, on the other hand, must resolve disputes finally and quickly. The scientific project is advanced by broad and wide-ranging consideration of a multitude of hypotheses, for those that are incorrect will eventually be shown to be so, and that in itself is an advance. Conjectures that are probably wrong are of little use, however, in the project of reaching a quick, final, and binding legal judgment – often of great consequence – about a particular set of events in the past.

Id. at 596-97.

There is strength in numbers, however.  The more reliable studies that are conducted showing similar results, the more likely the substance will be regulated effectively.  And the more likely litigants will be able to assemble a package of expert scientific evidence that will support their positions.


An abstract of the article may be found at

According to a recent report from the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), the FDA is currently taking a hands-off approach to food additives that contain engineered nanoparticles.  In fact, the FDA does not require food manufacturers to report additives that are deemed generally regarded as safe (GRAS).  Who determines the GRAS status?  The food manufacturers, without oversight or approval from the FDA!  The following excerpt from the GAO report, United States Government Accountability Office, Report to Congressional Requesters, Food Safety: FDA Should Strengthen Its Oversight of Food Ingredients Determined to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) (2010), provides a realistic and chilling view at the current intersection of the American food supply and nanotechnology:

FDA’s approach to regulating nanotechnology allows engineered nanomaterials to enter the food supply as GRAS substances without FDA’s knowledge. While some uses of engineered nanomaterials have the potential to help ensure food safety, uncertainties remain about how to determine their safety in food. After reviewing the uncertainties associated with the safety of engineered nanomaterials, FDA has decided that it does not need additional authority to regulate products containing such materials. Rather, FDA encourages, but does not require, companies considering using engineered nanomaterials in food to consult with the agency regarding whether such substances might be GRAS. Because GRAS notification is voluntary and companies are not required to identify nanomaterials in their GRAS substances, FDA has no way of knowing the full extent to which engineered nanomaterials have entered the U.S. food supply as part of GRAS substances. In contrast to FDA’s approach, all food ingredients that incorporate engineered nanomaterials must be submitted to regulators in Canada and the European Union before they can be marketed.

Id. at Highlights page (emphasis added).

The application of nanotechnology to food is potentially very beneficial. Two specific examples are 1) nanotags to “improve the traceability of food products (the ability to track these products from point of origin to retail sale)” and 2) the most prolific “usage appears to be in food packaging, where applications such as antimicrobial nanofilms—thin layers of substances meant to hamper the growth of bacteria and fungi—may help bolster food safety.” Notwithstanding the current and obvious benefits, the FDA, and its foreign counterparts, realized that the potential for hidden challenges does exist.  As a result, the FDA created a taskforce in 2007 to identify some of the potential pitfalls, and to recommend possible solutions. The taskforce identified several challenges posed by utilizing nanotechnology, specifically “ensuring the adequacy of methods for evaluating the safety of these engineered nanomaterials in food.” It also made mention of how little the FDA actually knows about nanotechnology and as a result, declined to include a definition of it in its report. (GAO Report 26-27).

At this point in time, even if something were to go awry as a result of nanomaterials being utilized in the food supply, where does the blame fall? According to current administrative law, the courts take an extremely deferential stance in favor of agency decisions when it comes to science. In Baltimore Gas & Elec. Co. v. Natural Res. Def. Counsel, 462 U.S. 87, 103 (1983), the Court stated, “[a] reviewing court must remember that the [agency] is making predictions, within its area of special expertise, at the frontiers of science. When examining this kind of scientific determination, . . . , a reviewing court must generally be at its most deferential.” This case dealt with a rule adopted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) based on findings “that permanent storage of nuclear waste would have no significant environmental impact.” Michael Asimov & Ronald M. Levin, State and Federal Administrative Law 595 (3d ed. 2009). This leads one to believe that if the NRC received this level of deference in the early stages of nuclear energy proliferation, the courts would almost certainly provide the same to the FDA’s lackadaisical decision-making approach to nanotech and the food we eat.

I certainly do not wish to suggest that the use of nanomaterials in our food supply is going to lead us down the long road of massive tort litigation, but I do wish to assert that if we are not vigilant from the very beginning, it is anyone’s guess where it could lead.