Nanotechnology: Blank Check for Science? E-mail
Friday, 21 May 2010 00:00  |  Written by Marita Prandoni | Commentary

Fullerene Model photo by fdecomiteThe Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, an academic-foundation think tank, defines nanotechnology as “ the art and science of manipulating matter at the nanoscale (down to 1/100,000 the width of a human hair) to create new and unique materials and products.” But this doesn’t capture the scale of the trend. Over the past couple of decades, with little notice from the public, nanotech particles have been added to more than 800 products, from cosmetics and tennis rackets to medicines.

Sometimes this is good news. South Korean scientists recently discovered a way to remove lead from the blood with minute nanotech magnets. Nanoscale therapies are seen as the wave of the future in other medical areas as well, from computing blood-sugar levels for diabetics to precisely targeting cancer cells.

But the very small has wormed its way into even more mundane treatments. For around $250, you can buy a little jar of face cream that promises to smooth out even the craggiest of complexions. Its key ingredient: nanotech buckyballs (also known as fullerenes), which are carbon atoms a billionth-of-a-meter wide. The three scientists who launched this new branch of chemistry in the late 1980s and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it in 1996 named these symmetrical, soccerball-shaped atoms after Buckminster Fuller, architect of the geodesic dome, which they resemble.

However, emerging studies caution that nanomaterials may behave like asbestos, which can cause lung cancer and other diseases when miniscule fragments are inhaled. These nanoparticles are so tiny that there’s a question as to whether they can enter the skin and introduce foreign particles into the bloodstream, resulting in an immune response. Another worry is that they could stimulate cells to alter DNA.

Yet despite these serious concerns, the FDA has declined to regulate nanotech. Unless and until they do, cosmetics manufacturers and other companies are not required to report nanoparticles in their products, either to the agency or the consumer. Adhering to the concept of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) as they did with genetically modified organisms, the US government has allowed manufacturers to place the burden of proof of their nanoparticle-laden products’ safety squarely on you and me.

In January 1998, an historic international gathering of scientists, philosophers and lawyers at the Johnson Foundation crafted the Wingspread Statement, urging governments and corporations to implement the Precautionary Principle in all projects that impact human health and the natural world. It’s a version of the “first, do no harm” idea, which appears in the Hippocratic oath taken by physicians. One Wingspread Statement champion, Carolyn Raffensperger, founding executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN), promotes it as the “duh principle” because, with the potential risks so high, it’s a no-brainer.

Germany formalized the Precautionary Principle in the 1930s, and has been a leader in demanding that the safety burden rest with industry. Older still is the Seventh Generation concept, grounded in the Iroquois belief that a decision should be judged based on its impact over seven generations to come.

Recently, Canada became the first country to require companies to disclose quantities of nanotech particles over one kilogram in their products. In the UK, since taxpayers fund most scientific research, public opinion holds sway. Kathy Sykes at the University of Bristol has set up a resource called the Sciencewise Project, a platform for allowing public dialogue to inform scientific policy decisions through newsletters, opinion polls and an online media center. The American counterpart is the SEHN, whose mission is to “engage communities and governments in the effective application of science to protect and restore public and ecosystem health.”

In 2006, the federal government spent $1.5 billion on developing nanoscale materials, with less than 2.5 percent earmarked to look at their health and safety risks. With this cavalier, ‘we’ll just clean up any mess later’ approach by scientists, industry and policymakers, we may wake up one day to find that nanotechnology has done significant damage to our bodies and our world.

We now see the results of the government having ignored the risks of financial-market deregulation—global economic meltdown. At least we have the option to ask taxpayers for a bailout. When it comes to nanotech, however, once these particles are out in the world, no panic-driven recall will bring them back. How do you corral something you can’t see. No, with nanotech, there’s no bailout coming. We have to get it right the first time.

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Comments (1)add
Written by Steve the Kaleidoscope Guy , May 22, 2010
This should be titled Nano no no's.
Modern science is indeed amazing, I enjoy it's many benefits, but......
Thanks for the reminder we each must do some of our own reseaerch and reconsider complete trust that they are looking out for us.
Caveat emptor vs e pluribus unum
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