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Nanotechnology hazard symbol misleading

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.

First, see the three symbols here.

As you can see, the first one has the atomic symbol, a skull, and the word NANOHAZARD. So, what’s the problem?

The atomic symbol is routinely interpreted to refer not just to atoms, but to nuclear reactions, as we can see by the keywords listed for the atomic symbol, which include fission, neutron, nuclear, nucleus, proton, and reactor. This is most unfortunate, since nanotechnology involves chemistry but not nuclear reactions, which are much higher energy.

So the natural layperson’s interpretation of this symbol is that they are being told of a nearby nuclear reaction which — since a skull is also shown — will kill them, and that — since the prefix NANO is shown — this nuclear reaction is a form of nanotechnology.

Most unfortunate, all around. However, though I believe the folks at ETC Group mean well, this is not the first time they have tried to conflate nanotechnology and subatomic particles: see their earlier report The Big Down: Atomtech — Technologies Converging at the Nano-scale (pdf):

Atomtech could also mean the creation and combination of new elements…

Atomtechnology refers to a spectrum of new technologies that seek to manipulate atoms, molecules and sub-atomic particles to create new products. Industry prefers the term nanotechnology.

Very unhelpful to the public debate, to put it mildly. Tsk, tsk, ETC Group: we know you know better. —Christine

9 Responses to “Nanotechnology hazard symbol misleading”

  1. Greg Says:

    That’s a shame. Some of the ones that they didn’t use look cool, at least.

    Here’s a question, on which scale do atomic reactions occur?

  2. Jeff Says:

    I don’t get it. Is this a respected group? Their staff and board seems to be loaded with intellectual lightweights for the most part. Few have any formal background or significant acccomplishments in any field of science. Do they really play a credible role in these matters?

  3. Martin G. Smith Says:

    Christine – I could not agree with you comments more. There is no need to ‘Officially’ instill fear. When people look at a symbol they immediately think it is some kind of Offficial Notification of something rather than to Warn of a potential hazard.
    Symbols are meant , I suggest, to inform, not incite.

  4. Hope Shand Says:

    Christine – I don’t think you understand how the international competition to design a nano-hazard warning symbol was set up. Go here to read all about it:

    ETC Group did not select the winner of the competition. We sponsored the competition, and we received a remarkable 483 entries from 24 countries. An independent panel of judges chose 16 finalists, and those finalists were taken to the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, where attendees had the opportunity to vote for their favorite.

    The panel of judges that chose the 16 finalists:
    Dr. Vyvyan Howard, Founding editor of the Journal of Nanotoxicology.
    Dr. Gregor Wolbring, Affilliated scholar Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University, USA.
    Chee Yoke Ling, Legal Advisor, Third World Network.
    Claire Pentecost, Artist, Writer, Associate Professor and Chair of the Photography Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
    Rory O Neill, Editor of Hazards (trade union workplace safety magazine).
    Dr. Alexis Vlandas, Nanotechnology spokesperson for International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility.

    It sounds like you don’t think the winning entries best represent a nano-hazard warning symbol – but they are the ones that received the most votes in Nairobi. If you look at the gallery of entries we received (you can see the gallery here: ) you’ll find an amazing selection of unique and in many cases, very high quality, graphic designs. It’s about time the public got involved in some aspect of nanotech! – Hope Shand, for ETC Group

  5. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Hope — We certainly support the public getting involved; as you know, Foresight has been working on that goal since 1986.

    Regarding the hazard warning symbol contest, the flawed result — one of three winners was seriously misleading — indicates that the process set up by ETC Group was flawed.

    The judges should have caught the problem I pointed out. Then the attendees could have selected from a more accurate set of choices.

    It doesn’t matter if a design is unique and very high quality if it is also misleading.


  6. Mark Wolfe Says:

    As long as this is used universally, it will eventually become synonymous with what its intended purpose is. I think the general public simply sees this as “something on the atomic level and danger” together.
    I agree it is not the best, but if it is to be used, there you are.
    Mark Wolfe

  7. Christine Peterson Says:

    Above I wrote: “The judges should have caught the problem I pointed out.” One of the judges, Gregor Wolbring, emailed me to point out: “I assume you are aware that the Nanohazard judges were not voting among each others on the symbols but that they each as individuals gave x numbers to ETC. So your blasting the judges in the way you did was also unfair.”

    He later clarified: “you were criticizing the jury for not having seen and acted on the characteristic in the hazard symbol you felt was a flaw. However if you would have asked Hope as to how the Jury worked you would have found have out that each juror could put forward 3 choices from all sent in designs to ETC headquarter who then were taken the the World Forum for voting. However no Juror saw the choices of the other jurors so we could not acted in the way you suggested we should have acted.”

    Additional clarification: “yes but I never saw what the other Jurors choose I was only responsible for what I forwarded to ETC. There was no way that Jurors could judge what the other Jurors sent to ETC

    “But you were attacking all Jurors
    but the system was not set up in the way you assumed.
    No Juror has known what the other Jurors put forward.”

    Gregor and I have, in a friendly fashion, agreed to disagree on this. I still feel that (1) the judges should have caught the problem, and (2) the process itself was flawed. Fortunately, Gregor has his own blog, so he can clarify his position without needing further help from me! –Christine

  8. Advertising Says:

    As long as this is used universally, it will eventually become synonymous with what its intended purpose is. I think the general public simply sees this as “something on the atomic level and danger” together.
    I agree it is not the best, but if it is to be used, there you are.

  9. Lindy Newlove-Eriksson Says:

    I understand that some of you are not pleased with the process but as someone just now reading about it from a less involved perspective I would like to say that despite imperfections I think the contest and the idea and the enthusiasm and debate it has generated and raised regarding an obviously controversial conceptual symbol is fantastic, fascinating and important!

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