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Nanotech & the Precautionary Principle: a personal statement

Yesterday I wrote about a possible nanotech-based replacement for battery technology, and mentioned that I’m the daughter of a battery engineer. What I didn’t say then is that my dad died of a type of cancer which is found more often among those involved with battery manufacture.

This gives me a more vehement view than some, perhaps, of to what extent we should apply the topic of Monday’s post — the Precautionary Principle — to nanotechnology. The strong version of the Precautionary Principle demands that a technology must be proven safe before it is used. But how many technologies are perfectly safe, and how could one prove this in advance? New technologies, such as carbon nanotube ultracapacitors, should be judged in comparison to the technologies they replace, not to an imaginary standard of perfect technological safety.

We can’t go from today’s dirty, dangerous technologies to perfectly clean, safe ones overnight. It will be a gradual, iterative process, with occasional bumps in the road when we make a mistake. That’s how the real world works.

If we enforce the Precautionary Principle too strongly, battery engineers will still be dying of that cancer at higher rates decades from now. Let’s aim for realistic improvements rather than an illusion of 100% safety. —Christine

8 Responses to “Nanotech & the Precautionary Principle: a personal statement”

  1. Jon Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree! Thanks for taking this stand.

  2. Nanoman Says:

    My condolences about your father, Christine :(

    Question: From what you know, what do you and Eric Drexler think about the claims and ideas that nanotechnology will allow us to harness the “Casimir Force”, to produce clean energy, to not only run nano systems, but, macro systems as well?

  3. Mark Wendman Says:

    Hmmm…. I think what is often lost on email nano-ists, is that industrial use of ANY new material requires testing. It is not a requirement specific to nano. This goes back to basic OSHA regulations, and is manifested in data required for MSDS data sheets placed in every workplace. It is curious coincidence by the way that Smalley passed on from cancer.

    Testing for cancer effects has a practical complication, in that the delay of onset of cancer in some cases can be long. But certain materials cause genertic damage early, so this can be observed in animal testing soon enough in a good number of examples, with present medical toxicology methods. This can catch the obvious hazards earlier and should be done, even if one has the spirit of a pioneer, and less of a pragmatist. ( ie the best path is a pragmatist…. a little bit of caution hardly ever hurts one’s health, or the health of one’s loved ones)

    I’d hazard a guess that the chemical exposure rules changed over the duration of your late dad’s career, and it likely got more stringent as time went on, and more understanding was gained regarding hazards of specific chemicals. And the improvement was partly due to improvement in medical toxicology as time went on.

    Being prudent with respect to workplace use of new “unknown” materials is important. One should properly be responsible to your employee’s and I’ve never heard ( or hardly hear ) folks fob off safety rules and the need for materials testing, except among folks who have NO industrial experience.

    Being irresponsible, even if you are a futurist, has its drawbacks, and I don’t say this lightly. History of Asbestos safety and remediation ( and cancer ) and the story of phosphorous watch dial workers contracting cancer near the turn of the century, are useful lessons from history, that one should have the good sense to learn from – at least adequate prudence?

    With specific issues regarding any finely divided nanomaterial, caution is largely warranted because the paths of ingress and degree of absorption rates change dramatically with smaller particles. The implications are unpredictable, and hence warrant a degree of pragmatic caution, not alarm, but not stupid naivete either.

    All things in moderation. And the wise saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” comes to mind as simple as it sounds.

    Despite the connotations, Asbestos is a nanomaterial, and despite some of the health issues being overblown with respect to complete removal from industrial settings, yet Asbestos never should have been deployed outside of industry in the least.

    Asbestos’ dimensions are comparable to carbon ( or other ) nanotubes, so some caution in environments that manufacture nanotubes is warranted ( ie don’t be naive ). Personally I think that deployment of nanotubes in cloth manufacture for consumer clothing is not a good idea, despite the stain prevention properties, and yes the greatest potential ( as yet unknown ) risk is possibly to the workers in the clothing and cloth manufacture, not so much to the folks who wear the clothing.

    I will point out that many of the biggest complainers about safety testing, as to potentially impeding nanotechnology, have curiously hardly ever worked in industry before, and are not cognizant of OSHA regulations used and implemented to protect workers. ie Inexperienced complainers stating safety testing is onerous, are just that – naive.

    There is no reason for nano to be exempt from OSHA regulations, and moreover in the case of extremely fine materials of any type, new testing is always warranted, whether inexperienced folks wish for whatever reason that this might not be so.

    It is not a big deal to test, and if the material had the characteristic of imminent cancer with onset of 5 years, I am guessing your particular outlook would be more prudent than your present position, as for example if your dad had ( sadly ) passed on much earlier in life…( as contrasted with the longer life it sounds he had before contracting cancer if I am interpreting your article / perspective correctly )

    all I can think of on this subject of slightly overblown controversy

  4. Christine Peterson Says:

    Response to Mark Wendham: We two are not in disagreement. I was objecting to the strong version of the Precautionary Principle. You are advocating a moderate version. —Christine

  5. Mark Wendman Says:

    All things in balance. You are correct.

    Many of those with knee jerk reflexive rejection of innovations, have their own “personal” issues, or axes to grind (ie willfull desire to grind society back into the dark ages).

    But too often I have also heard the reverse (not from you) from folks in the Investment / Research funding spheres, that have been irresponsible. Folks improperly stating that any safety testing is totally unecessary, which is false, foolhardy, and inconsiderate to those who might find themselves as employees working with new materials.

    It is easy to encourage foolhardy unsafe practices even in Academic environments, and the typical freedoms in research sometimes permits unsafe practices for less important reasons, and needs that are not particularly compelling enough to warrant risking one’s life for (or others lives for that matter).

    Signed contracts in university settings waiving all claims of responsibility seem rather silly in the face of the more egregious risks that may occur on purpose or carelessly.

    I once had to point out to a PhD student that the paper his professor gave him to use as experimental practice, was going to generate at least trace cyanide gas. He was already doing this chemical procudure in an open wet bench in the cleanroom, and did this on at least two separate occasions despite my polite but explicit warnings and pointing out that the particular procedure was listed explicitly as dangerous on the University’s EH&S list of “do no mix these chemicals due to danger”. The list was in the entrance changeroom of the cleanroom and easy to refer to, and simple to read.

    After the 2nd or third day of doing so, he stopped after he thought he felt tingling in his peripheral nerves and cautiously went to the hospital – no longer to do this risky chemical mixing / treatment despite the wrong advice / instructions of the professor…

    The professor who wrongly told his student to do this, was quite prestigious (former head of a national lab, and a distinguished member of the faculty) and my pointing this out raised a fair bit of ruckus that made my life miserable in the work I had to do for the next few years for my employer at the university as a consequence of the important bruised egos.

    But safety matters and I might have saved the kid’s life. All things in balance, and what is important is sometimes not you, but your actions that can positively affect others in tangible ways.

    I think there were recent tests done on the effects of buckey balls on Fish when the BB were dissolved in water the fish swam in. The results apparently were not pretty – I hazily remember something like evidence of brain tissue damage of some limited amount was observed? I don’t exactly remember the particulars, but the results apparently were rather quickly manifested to the toxicologist, and this was quite notable.

    Sadly I don’t quite relate to the phrase “Precautionary Principle”, partly since what you are calling is merely prudent common sense – especially for people who are educated experimental scientists and engineers. And moreover merely required by existing rules and laws for Occupational Health and Safety. I tend to avoid unnecessary new terms when something is merely prudent common sense.

  6. geoffrey Transom Says:

    The precautionary principle is an excuse for government and other human hookworms to get their tentacles into an infant industry – and it never does any good whatsoever. Most of what is advocated is like putting bananas in a Seattle front yard to ward off tigers. When no tiger attacks are reported, the parasite class (government, mostly) declares that their oversight was successful… and if a tiger attack does ever occur (say, due to the erroneous release of the tiger imported by the overseers to test the efficacy of the banana treatment), there are calls for increases in the banana budget.

    Referring to OSHA requirements as if they came on stone tablets is half the problem – OSHA exists to put sand in the gears of private activity. That’s the purpose of government, frankly – to suck some portion of the endeavour of private individuals ni order to feed a class of parasites.

    Deaths from things like asbestosis and toxic chemicals are a sad turn of events for the families involved, but one thing is absolutely certain – if you permit governments to get their talons into nanotech, it will founder on the shores of bureaucratic incompetence and cronyism… and theregulator will end up being the be-yatch of the most powerful players in the industry – much like the tobacco, energy and auto industries – to say nothing of the military-industrial complex.

    Sure, have research guidelines prepared by people like Drexler (I have read everything he’s written) – but something I wrote about the fact that successful self-replicating nanomanufacture being against the prime drivers of corporate types is the thing that’s applicable here. Anything that drives labour input to near zero, also drives wages, prices and profits to near-zero, and is therefore a massive equaliser of economic outcomes. This is anathema to most ‘Enron’ style executives, who – having already gained consumption satiety, now concentrate on maximising the gap between themselves and the rest of humanity. With this as their objective, they will do everything to STALL the development of molecular manufcturing. All this ‘precautionary principle’ falderol – bananas saving us from non-existent tigers – is just the beginning…



  7. Mark Wendman Says:


    One can go overboard. While you scoff at Government formulated SAFETY regulations, you are just as irresponsible as you seem to imply government is, albeit in a different manner/ perspective.

    I am no proponent of excessive government, but whether you wish to admit this, nano materials have potential risks that need regulations just as any chemical, for example like arsenic might, or asbestos, or sadly seatbelts to protect silly folks from becoming wards of the state needlessly??
    If no testing is done you can not see through some crystal ball to preordain the safety of something. Government is as good as any to perform shared testing, and yes it will be imperfect but far better then being completely irresponsible if never done.

    Since you are so obviously obsessed, I (hypothetically and in jest) wish upon you unregulated asbestos furniture in your house. It might have come to pass had regulations not existed. So there is some folly to your blanket statements railing against the government, no?

    And tell me you’d know if there was asbestos in your furniture? How could you tell unless regulations stipulated some kind of safety compliance or disclosure? You’d be a soothsaying psychic and cast some incantation to somehow know the chemicals used in your consumer items were safe? Folly I say to that…. And yes I acknowledge no testign will be perfect in any way, but none is not acceptable, as would be no regulations.. And I can cite excess from numerous experiences, but I am not a cynic like you so obviously are.

    While certain kinds of government obtrusiveness are of questionable benefits, you are best merely behind a keyboard, as that will limit risks you pose to yourself and to others. Don’t build anything, and don’t dream of working with chemicals as you might be lazy enough to not read the government mandated safety warnings, and if you had employees, not cautious enough to prevent some catastrophe, and if you possibly correctly got sued for negligence hypothetically, maybe there would be some quick change of heart? or merely justly deserved but sad “reward”?

    Government is not all bad, there are aspects of inroads into privacy that are not good, but everything in balance. Without government there might even be anarchy? Like back in the dark ages? I suppose you’d enjoy that for a moment, beyond the video game realism?

    So wail against the government … somethings are not so good, but being some irresponsible stubborn fellow is not even practical in the real world beyond a fantasy keyboard…

    Life is not so cut and dried as to agree completely with your statements.

    Oh and sadly despite what Drexler might say, we’ll never ever see a general purpose Molecular Assembler. NEVER. It is a pipedream of wishful computer scientist AI types. Pollyanna junk science.

    The closest to visions of molecular assembly will be along the lines of Bio Assisted Inorganic Self Assembly – like what Cambrios is undertaking as a potential business avenue ( Prof. Angela Belcher of MIT / UT Austin/ UCSB). Using mostly modified viruses to contruct self assembled structures of limited scope with the virus acting as a dedicated narrow scope molecular assembly machine. And potentially with the bad end of the stick of luck one of the modified viruses gets loose and wreaks havoc ( in the worst case scenario – which BTW I am not advocating nor fretting about either ).

    But even though this might pain you, Generalized Molecular Assembly won’t get anywhere off you simulation computer screen, except for DNA, Viruses and life as the real example.

    Life is not some sci fi prediction of dreamy hypothesis by folks unskilled in the appropriate arts or more specifically Hard SCIENCEs (and I do not mean computer sciences as it is hardly relevant here in nano – CS oriented “sci fi” is not nanotechnology – it is more like computer graphics fantasy).

  8. Robert Bradbury Says:

    I’ll go even a bit further. How many people *will* die because of excessive emphasis on concepts and actions resulting from those concepts which are fundamentally flawed? That includes concepts and paths which place an overemphasis on “precautions”. For example, I would maintain that most people alive today, particularly those in developed countries, would never “die” if reasonable paths were followed — and those paths do *not* require the availability of “real” nanotechnology today.

    We just finished putting back together the mitochondrial genome for a mammoth which has been sitting in ice for the last 30,000 years. A few more years down the road we will put back together the entire mammoth genome. Then we will resurrect the mammoth (we already have much of the elephant genome sitting in databases to build it on top of). The Jurassic Park scenario is going to be a bit more difficult but we *will* be able to run genome evolution backwards and then execute as many T-Rex (Velociraptor, Brontosaurus, Triceratops, etc.) creation experiments as we choose to see how close we can come to the original versions.

    Death as we currently define and experience it is an outmoded concept. People almost never “die” from cancer just as they rarely die from heart disease or strokes or other age related causes of death. They do “die” from processes we consciously inflict upon bodies, e.g. cremation or burial. They die less frequently from accidents that include things like severe fires, crushing injuries resulting from earthquakes or other various severe forms of head trauma. The majority of humans currently die because humanity as a whole refuses to recognise what a human mind consists of and take reasonable measures to retain its information content until such time as we have the technological capabilities to return it to a functional state. This is not difficult. Simply shipping recently functioning bodies to Northern Canada, Northern Russia or the Antarctic and storing them for a few decades is probably sufficient. Deep sea or outer space storage are other somewhat more expensive alternatives.

    The question is not how many people will accelerated nanotechnology development permanently remove from the roster of humanity? The question should be how many people will the failure to recognize what “death” *really* requires and a collective failure to act upon that knowledge end up killing?

    Slowed development of robust nanotechnology capable of restoring human minds due to the fear that a few might die from accidents or toxicity will allow people to delay confronting the fact that people do *not* die when their brain stops working — they die when their information content it holds is irretrievably lost.

    For people with relatives or friends who have recently ceased “operating” from the common causes of “death” and who were enbalmed and buried (vs. cremated) there is a reasonable chance that robust nanotechnology will allow them to be brought back. (At least that is my current semi-informed opinion.)


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