Public, Critical friend

Public perceptions of nano in consumer products

Hilary Sutcliffe

16 Jan 2017


Hilary was involved on the advisory panel of this project which was an exciting opportunity to explore with the general public their views of nanotechnologies in real products instead of in the abstract sense which was the focus of previous dialogues.   The products considered were Sunscreens, Fuel additives, Paint and Environmental Clean up. 


However, there were significant shortcomings to the process and methodology which meant it seemed to me to be a real lost opportunity to get a more nuanced picture of nanotechnologies in use.  The information given to participants was general and basic and I thought much more could have been done to drill down into the real issues associated with the products in an accessible way and not just skim the top line.


The full final report and documents are available here


Understanding public perceptions of specific applications of nanotechnologies.


The Summary conclusion is here:


Chapter 9: Conclusions

In this final chapter we draw some conclusions based on participants’ rich, nuanced and considered deliberations throughout the dialogue. Participants’ prior unfamiliarity with nanotechnologies in general and with some of the products being discussed, whether nano or non-nano form, meant that views shifted throughout the three workshops, growing more and less clear at different points over the course of the dialogue. Participants also accorded varying weight to a range of factors – for example whether or not a nanomaterial occurred at that scale in nature or had been engineered – depending on the particular application being discussed. Other factors affecting participants’ perceptions included the possibility of release into the environment, uptake by the body through inhalation or ingestion, the level of choice over use or exposure, the value derived from use and the perceived robustness of existing evidence.


As noted earlier, we did not look for consensus in this dialogue. Whilst paints and coatings, and fuel additives gave rise to fewer concerns than sunscreens and contaminated land remediation, we cannot say with certainty that participants embraced the two former products wholeheartedly or rejected the latter two completely. Throughout the dialogue, there was a fine balance between the perceptions of the potential benefits and harms of the four applications shifting according to the level and type of evidence available, the relevance to people’s experiences, and the weight given to risks. A few participants leaned more clearly towards the benefits and others towards the harms, but the views of most remained unstable or ambivalent.


Participants reflected on the unusual setting for the discussion and the intensity of focus on the topic. They observed too that the spotlight many had placed first on the potential harms and risks of the four applications, with consideration of potential benefits coming later, is a human response to any topic. So whilst we draw some broad conclusions below, the reader should remember that these are not “pure”: that is to say, the findings on which they are based are as much artefacts of the process itself and human responses to novel information as they are rationally considered viewpoints based on the consideration of factual information about four nanotechnology applications.


Our first conclusion is that the focus in this dialogue on specific applications, rather than on nanotechnology in general has been of great benefit. By looking across the four applications we have seen how participants weigh the risk of harm against potential benefits differently in each case and how underpinning themes such as naturalness, choice and control over exposure and economic benefits to the consumer have more or less relevance, depending on the nature of the product, the context in which it is used and the problem that it is seeking to address. For example, participants can choose easily whether or not to use a nano-enabled sunscreen, yet this application met with most concern and was considered the least acceptable of the four. This seems to be because sunscreen as a product is associated with the prevention of harm, particularly future harm to children. The uncertainty surrounding the take up of nanoparticles by the body, the long term effects of use and the possibility of wash-off Understanding public perceptions of specific applications of nanotechnologies – A public dialogue Restricted external Final – Version: 3.1.12 Page 87 of 86 OPM into water courses were together sufficient to render choice less important. Participants were also indignant that a nano-version of sunscreen was on the market already and that they might have bought and used it unwittingly. For choice to be real, participants felt they needed to have the information and understanding necessary for it to be exercised effectively.


By focusing on specific applications, the indeterminate promises of nanotechnologies in general are forced to become concrete. Across the four applications, we looked at different base materials: cerium oxide, titanium dioxide and iron; at different types of exposure: inhalation, absorption through the skin; at different types of environmental dispersion: through the soil, through water and through the air, and at different contexts of use: industrial, in the case of contaminated land remediation and coatings and individual in the case of fuel additives, paints and sunscreens. The concrete nature of the discussions made it both easier and harder for participants: easier, in that they had a specific product to discuss, but harder, because the variables and the interplay between them differed in the case of each product, so how best to weigh up the potential benefits against the potential harms was an ongoing dilemma, resolved more completely in the case of paints and fuel additives than it was for sunscreens and contaminated land remediation.


A second conclusion is that participants’ focus on the lack of clear evidence about potential future harms does not necessarily indicate an over-cautious or conservative view of technological development. Participants’ references to technologies or products that have been released into the market and later found to cause sometimes severe harms does not mean they wish to halt innovation. Instead, it highlights a theme running through the dialogue, which is that innovation is not just technological or scientific but encompasses policy and regulation too. Learning the lessons of past harms does not mean only that science and technology must – for example – not engineer nanoparticles of the same shape, structure and rigidity as asbestos in the future; it means as well that regulators and policy-makers must ensure that they understand that trade-offs are involved in realising the undoubted economic benefits to the UK of nanotechnologies, the relative distribution of benefits and harms.


Third, and not specific to the four applications, is that communication about nanotechnologies needs to be honest, open and transparent. Participants connected most with the specialists who provided detailed and accessible information about the science; talked about where uncertainty is of most concern; described what lessons have been learned from the past; pointed to current research and talked about the questions they ask themselves about the applications and the technology more generally. This direct and open input was valued by participants, primarily because it did not seek either to minimise the potential risks or overplay the potential benefits of each product, or make generalisations – for example, that concerns about nanotechnologies can be minimised because materials are naturally occurring.


The messenger is also important, as the response to the Greenpeace video input shows. It is clear from the exercise at the end of the dialogue, in which participants were asked to construct a front page about the four applications, that many of them see the media as primarily selling something: an idea, a perspective or a product. Despite giving no instruction to this effect, two of the groups treated this exercise in this way, and explained their focus on the positive aspects of the nano-applications in these terms. By contrast, participants did not Understanding public perceptions of specific applications of nanotechnologies – A public dialogue Restricted external Final – Version: 3.1.12 Page 88 of 86 OPM see Greenpeace as ‘selling’. By covering potential benefits and risks in their contribution, Greenpeace seemed to confound participants’ expectations of what such an organisation might say about nanotechnologies and also perhaps to licence a more positive view: if even Greenpeace can find something positive to say about nanotechnologies, they can’t be all that bad, the reasoning seemed to go.


A fourth conclusion relates to innovation more generally. Participants placed great weight on the problem being solved by the applications. They found it less easy to see the benefits of nanotechnologies in sunscreen than they did the benefits of nanotechnologies in fuel additives, primarily because the problem being addressed by fuel additives with nanotechnology is seen as so pressing. This – perhaps in addition to the potential economic benefits to the consumer arising from reduced fuel use – meant that they were more likely to discount the potential risks of release into the atmosphere and perhaps less suspicious of conflicting information about this: they were less likely to interrogate the exact quantity of nanomaterial emitted into the atmosphere with exhaust fumes than they were to interrogate the degree of uncertainty about sunscreen being absorbed or not being absorbed through the skin. Participants do not want innovations of this type or their application in specific products to be taken lightly. Where the problem to be addressed is sufficiently severe, the tolerance for uncertainty seems greater.


Participants do have aspirations for nanotechnologies, but these are expressed in a complex interplay with their uncertainty about the potential risks and benefits of particular products. They see the value in addressing social problems, such as antimicrobial resistance or pollution. They also see value in keeping costs down for consumers. They want those responsible for legislating and regulating nano-containing products to be held accountable for any adverse effects arising from their use and for those who might be in a position to identify these effects – such as doctors – to be taught how to spot these effects. They value independence highly, particularly at the research and testing phases but also in communicating about these products. They saw the value of taking some risks, to enable the UK to establish a space on the world stage for technological creativity and innovation but not at the expense of rigorous testing.


Finally, managing risk on a day-to-day basis was, for many participants, a matter of using knowledge gained from their own experience, that of their families and friends and relying on trusted intermediaries, including brands and retail outlets. With products using nanomaterials, this knowledge is absent. This means that individuals felt unable to assess the safety of a product or manage risk and their expectation is that the risk must therefore be managed effectively by those who are perceived to have that knowledge: in this case government and industry.


As our conclusions show, participant perceptions in this area are constantly evolving depending on their understanding of a range of social, individual, health and environmental factors. The nuance and variation of aspirations and fears around the development of specific applications of nanotechnology indicates that as the prevalence of nanotechnologies in our lives increases, public engagement on this topic will be more pressing than ever. There will be particular interest from many members of the public to input and feedback as regulation takes Understanding public perceptions of specific applications of nanotechnologies – A public dialogue Restricted external Final – Version: 3.1.12 Page 89 of 86 OPM a more concrete form and new evidence comes to light answering some of the uncertainties and unknowns. As a diverse and far reaching field, it will be the collective responsibility of stakeholders, researchers and policy-makers to collaborate to ensure the public voice is reflected in both the product and regulation development of nanotechnologies. Ultimately, this public involvement will be necessary to align the development of nanotechnology with perceived needs on an individual and societal level.