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Think twice before labeling nanotechnology products

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The ETC Group, recently mentioned here for its PR skills, has announced a contest to design a Nano-Hazard symbol for nanotechnology:

Standard setting bodies around the world are now scrambling to agree on nomenclature that can describe nanoparticles and nanomaterials. A common, internationally-recognized symbol warning of the presence of engineered nanomaterials is equally overdue.

So apparently they want this symbol on all products using engineered nanomaterials, an extraordinarily broad category. There are at least two ways in which this is a bad idea.

First, many such nanotech products will turn out not to be hazards at all. A similar case exists here in California: state law requires the posting of a warning sign about chemical hazards. This sign has now been posted in so many places (all grocery stores, increasing numbers of apartment buildings) that consumers disregard it entirely. It’s become meaningless. This kind of overuse reduces the communication value of hazard signs in general.

Second, we don’t need another symbol. As ETC points out on their page, there is already a well-established symbol for toxic hazards. Consumers shouldn’t have to learn a new symbol: either something is toxic or it’s not.

We need to take a precautionary approach to the strong version of the precautionary principle itself. It could do more harm than good. —Christine

8 Responses to “Think twice before labeling nanotechnology products”

  1. Adam Says:

    I definitely agree with Christine’s point. Further, I think it should be pointed out that ETC Group isn’t pedaling for a Nano hazard symbol simply for the safety of nano consumers. From the website:

    “Nanotechnology also raises new societal hazards: The granting of patents on nano-scale materials and processes, and even elements of the periodic table, allows for increased corporate power and monopoly over the smallest parts of nature. Some designer nano materials may come to replace natural products such as cotton, rubber and metals — displacing the livelihoods of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.”

    This statement seems to convey an attitude on the part of ETC that technological progress is a detriment to the lives of our world’s poorest residents. Most followers of Nano, I believe, would say the complete opposite, that Nanotechnology has more potential to help those in poverty than probably any other technology to date.

    The question that ETC poses about Nano patents is equally as questionable in my opinion. The article mentions patents on “the smallest parts of nature.” However, patent law strictly prohibits the issue of a patent for a naturally occurring material; someone can patent only synthesized compositions of matter. Patents must be novel and non-obvious, and nature is, by definition, obvious. The point is not only moot, but, in my opinion, inflammatory.

    Could Nano possibly benefit from a public scare similar to what is seen around nuclear technology? With the risk of meltdown currently nominal, nuclear power has enormous potential to help the world’s poorest citizens, but fear has effectively stifled any progress.

    I believe that ETC has ulterior hidden motives in creating these “hazard symbols.” While “monitoring power” and “strengthening diversity” are admirable goals, ETC’s concern is based on fear, not fact. Certainly some Nano materials may present a hazard in the future, but anticipating these problems at the cost of progress seems a bit too reactionary for my tastes.


  2. Eric Tulloch Says:

    Right! So who’s up for developing a hazard symbol for hazard symbols?

    On a more serious note, this is perhaps a slightly more innocuous development than calling for a comprehensive ban of nanomaterials/nanotechnology. What concerns me about this is that ETC seems to be saying “if it’s something on the nanometer scale, it must be dangerous.” That view, coupled with hazard symbols, might provoke more fear than understanding. It is one thing to maintain a healthy respect for things that have a potential for danger, but quite another to rush to label everything associated with them under the same umbrella.
    And if we want to be nitpicky, nature engineers nanomaterials all the time…

  3. docdeal Says:

    It seems that some organizations are not reactionary but indeed are over-reactionary. I think Martin Philbert of Michigan School of Public Health has expressed my sentiments as well as anyone. He said recently at the FDA/Nanotechology Conference held 10/10/06, “The key is to manage the risk while achieving the maximum benefit from the materials. It would be wrong for us to overregulate.”

  4. Jonathan Lee Says:

    The whole concept of the Precautionary Principle was authored specifically so that various anti-technology groups could propagate their restrictions without sounding like the “Chicken Little”‘s they are. Both the weak and the strong versions of the Precautionary Principle are simply ways to shift the burden of proof from the accusor to the defender to force them to prove a negative. In 2004 the Proactionary Principle was developed to counter their falacious arguments. You can read more about it at

  5. Nanodot: Nanotechnology News and Discussion » Blog Archive » Nanotechnology hazard symbol misleading Says:

    [...] We should assume that those participating the ETC Group’s nanotechnology hazard symbol contest are all trying to be helpful, and such a symbol may someday be of some use. However, of the three top symbols named as winners, the first one — by far the most vivid — has a real problem. [...]

  6. marc manspeaker Says:

    If you include the development of artificial inteligence, which is used all the time, in banking transactions and even computer science, you may be able to tell nano-particles where to travel and how to cure a problem. Nano-Tech is using commad signals to tell the atomic particles what to do and this is valuable technology. If this is used in the cellular structure of our body then we will have the ability to eliminate many problems that are now incurable. We will find cures for illnesses on a grand scale. Atomic sculpturing of the cellular structure in order to change the entire make-up of my own body. This concept when under scientific use will change the way we look at living forever. That is the goal. Human Immortality.

    Marc Manspeaker
    Glendale, Arizona USA

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