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Study Finds Public Relatively Unconcerned About Nanotechnology Risks

A new study finds that the general public thinks getting a suntan poses a greater public health risk than nanotechnology or other nanoparticle applications. The study, from North Carolina State University, compared survey respondents’ perceived risk of nanoparticles with 23 other public-health risks.

The study is the first to compare the public’s perception of the risks associated with nanoparticles to other environmental and health safety risks. Researchers found that nanoparticles are perceived as being a relatively low risk.

“For example, 19 of the other public-health risks were perceived as more hazardous, including suntanning and drinking alcohol,” says Dr. Andrew Binder, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the study. “The only things viewed as less risky were cell-phone use, blood transfusions, commercial air travel and medical X-rays.”

In fact, 60 percent of respondents felt that nanoparticles posed either no health risk or only a slight health risk.

In the study, researchers asked a nationally representative panel of 307 people a battery of questions about how risky they believe nanoparticles are compared to 23 other public health risks – such as obesity, smoking, using cell phones and nuclear energy.

Policy implications of these findings could be substantial given the concerns expressed by proponents and opponents of nanotechnology that the public is wary of its environmental health and safety dangers. “The findings suggest just the opposite,” says Dr. David Berube, professor of communication at NC State and lead author of the study. “While it remains unclear whether nanoparticles are safe, they are not a major concern among the general public.”

The paper, “Comparing nanoparticle risk perceptions to other known EHS risks,” is forthcoming from the Journal of Nanoparticle Research. The paper was co-authored by Berube and Binder; Jordan Frith and Christopher Cummings, Ph.D. students at NC State; and Dr. Robert Oldendick of the University of South Carolina. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

NC State’s Department of Communication is part of the university’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Comparing nanoparticle risk perceptions to other known EHS risks”

Authors: David M. Berube, Christopher L. Cummings, Jordan H. Frith, Andrew R. Binder, North Carolina State University; Robert Oldendick, University of South Carolina

Published: Forthcoming, Journal of Nanoparticle Research

Abstract: Over the last decade social scientific researchers have examined how the public perceives risks associated with nanotechnology. The body of literature that has emerged has been methodologically diverse. The findings have confirmed that some publics perceive nanotechnology as riskier than others, experts feel nanotechnology is less risky than the public does, and despite risks the public is optimistic about nanotechnology development. However, the extant literature on nanotechnology and risk suffers from sometimes widely divergent findings and has failed to provide a detailed picture of how the public actually feels about nanotechnology risks when compared to other risks. This study addresses the deficiencies in the literature by providing a comparative approach to gauging nanotechnology risks. The findings show that the public does not fear nanotechnology compared to other risks. Out of 24 risks presented to the participants, nanotechnology ranked 19th in terms of overall risk and 20th in terms of “high risk.”

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