TCS Daily


From Nemo to Nano

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week I traveled up to Washington for the day to attend a meeting of the Environmental Protection Agency's Science Advisory Board. I was there to take part in a panel on nanotechnology regulation, which I'll say more about later. But I heard most of the sessions, and there was a lot of interesting stuff. So here are a few highlights before we get to the nanotechnology part.

The atmospheric chemists were out in force for a discussion of transboundary air pollution, and the take-home point from that discussion was that pretty much all air pollution seems to be of the transboundary (across state or national borders) variety. Dust kicked into the air in Asia seems to affect climate in the United States and Europe. Soot from forest fires, or even auto exhaust, travels a long, long way. It also seems that measurements on the ground are poor indicators of what's going on at higher altitudes, as pollution can be much higher, or lower, at different altitudes. Measurement is very difficult: As one panelist said, satellites paint pretty pictures that are often wrong, while point measurements are usually right, but not very useful. Putting the data together is hard, and I was impressed by the degree of humility displayed by the experts. (My favorite line, which actually garnered applause from the audience: "Models are always wrong, but sometimes useful.")

 

If the news on air was mixed, the news on water was just plain bad, and the panel on water pollution made me wonder if I should swear off water entirely. The bad news is that tap water is at risk from all sorts of contaminants, especially microbial ones, that aren't properly addressed, or even understood. The tradition of using coliform bacteria as an indicator of water contamination is apparently outdated, and lots of things, like viruses and various parasites, can show up in tap water even when it's coliform-free. There's a growing suspicion that some of these organisms are associated with chronic illnesses, but there's not enough research to be sure yet. The impression that I got was of 1950s technology being employed to meet 21st century threats. One interesting area of agreement seemed to be that there has been too much worry about chemical contamination of the water supply in relation to the risk that it poses, and not enough worry about microbes when you consider how much risk they pose. I can't help but think that the legal profession is partly to blame for this, as you can't sue a microbe, but you can sue a company that makes or uses chemicals...

 

Another problem is the poor state of water pipelines in many communities, allowing leakage, and contamination. One panelist suggested that these are probably a much bigger weakness in the system than outdated treatment facilities, but they're expensive to fix and not very sexy. For the extra-icky part, we heard that there is a lot of "indirect reuse" of wastewater (with water treatment plants taking in water that has recently exited from sewage treatment plants) but that "nobody wants to do a survey of that." It's icky, but I think all of this deserves more attention. Meanwhile, I'm tempted to switch to beer.

 

At a discussion of "invasive species" -- the Zebra Mussel was the poster child -- it was stated by one person that the introduction of foreign species has done far more ecosystem damage than chemical insults, and that the nature and extent of that damage is poorly understood. Half of native species in North America, reportedly, are affected by invaders, and amazingly 95% of the species in San Francisco Bay are non-native. (There's a government website, invasivespecies.gov, which has lots of information on this topic.) Ships discharging ballast water are major culprits, as are people who release foreign fish from their aquariums. I don't know where Nemo fits into the equation. Is the problem so bad already that it's futile to try to do anything? Should we even worry about the spread of species to new areas, which is just part of evolution? Some felt that these considerations meant that we should take a hands-off approach, but many more seemed to feel that the damage done by invaders could be so great as to demand action. (Pictures of the Northern Snakehead, "Satan's own fish," abounded during the PowerPoint presentations.)

 

My presentation was part of a panel on the regulation of nanotechnology, and was based on my soon-to-appear Harvard Journal of Law and Technology piece on the subject. I divided nanotechnology into the following categories:

  • Fake (where it's basically a marketing term, as with nanopants);

 

  • Simple -- high-strength materials, sensors, coatings, etc -- things that are important, but not sexy;

 

  • Major -- advanced devices short of true assemblers;

 

  • Spooky -- assemblers and related technology (true Molecular Nanotechnology).

I noted that only in the final category did serious ethical or regulatory issues appear, and also noted that the recent flood of "it's impossible" claims relating to "spooky" nanotechnology seems to have more to do with fear of ethical or regulatory scrutiny than anything else. I won't waste too many pixels on my own views here, because you can read the article in draft here.

Most of the discussion seemed to revolve around the toxicological aspects of nanoparticles. Interestingly, several atmospheric chemists jumped up and made the following points:

  • This stuff isn't as scary as the critics make it sound. Atmospheric chemists have been studying nanoparticles for a long time, and know a lot about how they behave, whether of toxic or nontoxic composition.

  • Nanoparticles in the atmosphere won't stay that way for long -- they'll stick together and form aggregates, then precipitate out quite quickly. They saw this as a workplace safety issue more than an environmental issue. (There followed a discussion of repulsive surfaces using Van der Waals forces to prevent clumping, but the consensus seemed to be that you'd have to design that in because you wanted it -- it's not an inherent safety issue).

  • The toxicologists responded that (a) in aqueous settings nanoparticles are more dangerous and there's evidence that some substances become more toxic at smaller particle sizes because of better cellular uptake; (b) toxicologists know a lot about testing this sort of thing; (c) all it would take is a moderate amount of money to address these issues -- it's no big deal.

Overall, I found the meeting quite interesting, even apart from my panel. It seems fair to say that there's no overwhelming sentiment in favor of implementing nanotechnology regulation now. I do think, though, that the debate is now genuinely underway, and that that's a good thing. Stay tuned for more on this subject in future columns.

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