TCS Daily

Nanotech's Toxic Shock

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 12, 2006 12:00 AM

Quite some time ago, I warned that nanotechnology's public-relations strategy was dangerously shortsighted. The industry -- afraid of spooky, Michael Crichton-esque scenarios involving advanced nanotechnology that tries to take over the Earth -- decided to pooh-pooh the prospects for advanced nanotechnology, and play up less scary near-term quasi-nanotechnologies like coatings, sensors, and nanomaterials.

The problem is that while concerns about the scary Crichton scenarios are easy to debunk (see this Crichton debunking by Freeman Dyson, for example), the inevitable problems with nanomaterials are not, and they're happening in the present, rather than the undefined future. For example, the Washington Post reports on a nanoproduct recall in Germany, involving a window spray that purportedly contains nanoparticles. Some people had respiratory problems, and though it's not clear whether they stem from the propellant or the particles, the news coverage is headlined "Nanotech Product Recalled in Germany." That's bad for business.

Likewise, another Post story warns of potential worker health risks:

No state or federal worker-protection rules address the specific risks of nanomaterials, even though many laboratory and animal studies have shown that nano-size particles -- those on the order of a millionth of a millimeter -- spur peculiar biological reactions and can be far more toxic than larger granules of the same chemicals.

Regulators say they need more data before setting standards. But of the $1.2 billion the government has proposed spending on its National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2007 -- a research funding program to help jump-start the promising sector -- only about two-tenths of 1 percent is earmarked to study workplace safety issues.

I'm all for study -- the OSHA Act already requires employers to provide a safe workplace, but even employers may not know what that means, exactly, in the context of nanoparticles.

But this bad press for the industry could have been avoided. These technologies aren't even real nanotechnology, in terms used by most nanotechnologists. In a taxonomy I created for an earlier column, I defined the classes of nanotechnology this way:

  • 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).

The kinds of technology we're talking about here are somewhere between the "Fake" and the "Simple" categories. Except for the "nano" prefix, they don't have much in common with Drexlerian assemblers and similar "spooky" nanotechnology of the sort that the industry's near-term PR strategy was intended to minimize. Unfortunately, it's made the problem worse, not better.

The good news is that the Post workplace-safety story is all about the kind of research needed to make workplaces safe, and takes a pretty sensible tone:

That is why a swarm of NIOSH scientists recently spent the better part of a week at Altair with nearly a ton of equipment for measuring worker exposures to nanoparticles.

Altair was not in trouble -- far from it. The inspection was at the invitation of the company's chief executive, Alan Gotcher. Unlike many of his corporate peers, who have kept their heads down amid a flurry of questions about what, exactly, they are making and how they are assuring worker safety, Gotcher thinks the industry should share what it knows about nanotech manufacturing methods and safety strategies.

"We need to be responsible and we have to be proactive, and if we've got products that have problems, we've got to do something about it," Gotcher said. "On the flip side, we should not let fear of the unknown cause an overreaction."

That sort of strategy -- getting ahead of the problem -- is pretty smart, and indicates that the industry is catching on. It's a good thing. At an EPA Science Advisory Board meeting that I attended a while back (and reported on here), the atmospheric chemists and toxicologists said that they actually know a lot about the behavior of airborne nanoparticles, and their toxicity, and that researching their safety wasn't likely to prove a major task. So I'm glad that we're working on it, but I doubt we'll find any safety showstoppers.

And while it may not be very sophisticated nanotechnology yet, it's worth noting that even primitive nanotechnology isn't just a potential source of toxins -- according to the BBC it's already helping with toxins: "Tiny particles of gold could soon be helping to spot viruses, bacteria and toxins used by bio-terrorists. Researchers in the UK have found that gold nanoparticles are very effective detectors of biological toxins. The particles reveal the presence of poisons far faster than existing techniques which often involve shipping samples back to a lab." It's only the, er, tiniest start, but it's something.

Glenn Reynolds is a TCS contributing editor.


TCS Daily Archives