TCS Daily

Nitpicking Nanotechnology

By Waldemar Ingdahl - January 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Nanotechnology, the manufacture of materials and machines with atomic precision and size, is regarded as the next technical revolution. As the debate rages on its eventual capabilities, it is inevitably becoming a target for environmentalist attacks.

The first major public attack on nanotechnological safety was launched by the Winnipeg-based organization ETC Group. It has worked hard to raise the red flag on the issue internationally. Pat Mooney, the group's executive director, claims not to oppose nanotechnology per se, believing that it has a huge potential for improving health and the environment. His worry is that the science is unregulated and must be brought under control to prevent human harm or undesirable social consequences.

Mooney warns about nanoparticles. Pieces of nanomachines or materials on the order of a billionth of a meter in size might cause unexpected danger. Ordinary silica can cause silicosis if small particles are lodged in the lungs so it is not unreasonable to think that nanoparticles could be trouble.

This is a wise choice of target, since it is far easier to get regulators worried about something familiar than something completely new. It is also far easier to get across internationally; while the grand possibilities of nanotechnology in the US are seen as potentially relevant, in Europe the perspective is far more directed towards practical applications in the very near future, and ETC ideas have reached many thinkers in the EU.

ETC claims that nanoparticles' biological and ecological effects are unknown. On one level this is true: we do not know everything about nanoparticles, something that all researchers in the field agree should be remedied. On another level it is false: we already have much information about nanoparticles' biological effects to suggest proper policies as we wait for further information. Robert Freitas Jr's Nanomedicine devotes an entire volume to the issue of making nanomachines compatible with living tissues. The interim judgment appears positive: most nanoparticles studied so far do not exhibit any toxic effects, and the risks of random nanoparticles are likely low.

ETC has proposed a shutdown of all research and development and a moratorium on commercial production of new nanomaterials. They have also called for an international forum for examining new technologies, and evaluating new technologies' scientific, social and economic effects before introduction to society.

The problem is that ETC dilutes the concept of "nanotechnology." Anything from cosmetics with nanoparticles to speculative molecular machines is viewed as nanotechnology, and supposedly risky. A wide range of processes produce nanoparticles, including the burning of diesel fuels; should a moratorium be placed on them until they can be proven safe? By promoting the most dramatic promises and threats of nanotechnology while at the same time extending the term to cover even standard processes ETC makes it look like potentially devastating risks are being ignored.

Many concerns are already being addressed by nanotechnology organizations, such as the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). They are not being ignored but rather treated with the customary review. But it is easy to make this look like the authorities are idle, since few in the public follow scientific publications.

ETC coined the term atomtechnology for all technologies that manipulate molecules, atoms and subatomic particles, as well as manipulation of living and nonliving matter to create new or hybrid organisms/devices. Deliberately linking nanotechnology with biotechnology, chemistry and nuclear technology into a single vast field is a strategy to make people uneasy about one of them feel the same way about the rest.

Overall the ETC reports often quote a vast number of authoritative sources within the fields being criticized, taking the information out of context and adding conclusions that do not follow from the full text.

Nanocontamination is a means to an end, in the line of getting technology "under control." Mooney writes: "extreme care should be taken that, unlike with biotech, society does not lose control of this technology." Few technologies are surrounded with more stringent rules and oversight organizations as biotechnology -- is this a technology out of control? To some even a highly regulated technology would be outside of control simply by existing. ETC has much experience in attacking biotechnology. It is from this context of opposing technology in itself that the criticism comes. By pointing out safety concerns far in advance of any truly radical applications they hope to bring in a restrictive regulatory regime -- and as restrictive regulations often do, slow development.


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