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Nanotechnology: Activists throw baby out with bathwater

First, I should state that I yield to no one when it comes to caring about the environment. That’s what got me interested in nanotechnology in the first place, and a large part of why Foresight was founded in 1986 and keeps going today.

So I was disappointed with the recent press release from a large number of activist groups demanding strong restrictions on nanotech. Their position involves an underlying assumption that nanotech, overall, will be more harmful to the environment than the technologies we are using today — the technologies that nanotech will replace. This assumption is unproven and quite possibly wrong. Nano watchers know that nanotechnologies are being widely used already in products designed to lessen the burden on the environment.

In the longer term, we can expect even more improvements, since by its very nature, nanotech is about gaining better control of what we do with matter. The ultimate goal is the complete elimination of chemical pollution.

The press release sounds good until you think hard about it. For example:

IV. Environmental Protection: A full lifecycle analysis of environmental impacts must be completed prior to commercialization.

Who could object to that, right? Well, here’s the problem: that’s difficult and expensive to do, and will slow or stop nanotech products from being produced. Meanwhile, older dirtier technologies that are grandfathered in continue to be used.

So the assumption that enforcement of the demands in the press release would be necessarily good for the environment is flawed. I think I know what’s going on: the groups would prefer that these rules apply to *all* new products, and in fact all *old* products as well. But they know that getting that to happen all at once is impossible, so they are aiming at this new field and trying to get the rules implemented for nanotech first.

It’s an understandable strategy, and I think the groups mean well. Our ultimate goal of clean, safe products is the same. But I worry that this strategy may backfire for the environment. (This is without even considering what it would do to medical applications, such as the extremely promising cancer treatments now in human trials.)

There is important work to do in terms of figuring out how to regulate nanomaterials. But I don’t think this is the way to go.

Increasing amounts of solid, useful research is being done to address the concerns these groups are raising. Let’s work a lot harder in those areas and get the data we need to make sensible, targeted, science-based regulations. —Christine

5 Responses to “Nanotechnology: Activists throw baby out with bathwater”

  1. Cosmic Vortex Says:

    Well now your seeing that most of the environmentalists are not anti-technology because they genuinely care about the environment, but because of philosophical reasons.

    Ive brought up the point on many forums about how nanotech can help fix pollution issues and almost always the response is…”but that just creates MORE of the same problem, which is too much technology”. Now you might consider this just pure ignorance on their part, and its a good argument, but after informing them of the possibilities, they still didnt seem receptive to the idea and just wrote nanotech off as more “unnatural” intervention from man.

  2. Dr. Raj Bawa Says:

    Christine presents some excellent points.

    I am optimistic that fears about the potential toxic effects of nanomaterials, whether they are silver nanoparticles or CNTs, will eventually give way to intelligent public dialogue based on good science and not hype or misinformation. This will highlight the positive applications and impact of nanotechnology.

  3. Phillip Huggan Says:

    I might look into this too, Christine. A recent physorg.com article mentioned a researcher who added tiny particles of Boric acid to engine oil to decrease a car’s oil usage and wear rates. It mentioned two years until environmental testing would be complete. For FDA medical testing I can see there may be obvious ethical dillemnas, but these wouldn’t apply to environmental testing for products that protect uncosted environmental capital.
    I’ve taken a cursory look at Canada’s environmental testing agency. If I ever look in depth and find any improvements (hire better testers or streamline certain procedures) I’ll be sure to let Foresight and other NGOs know.

  4. Jaydee Hanson Says:

    Christine: I assume that you read the longer version of the document, not just the press release. Since the release another 20 groups have endorsed the principles. Your readers can access the whole document at: http://www.icta.org/doc/Principles%20for%20the%20Oversight%20of%20Nanotechnologies%20and%20Nanomaterials_final.pdf

    I would be careful about asserting that medical uses of nanotechnology are “extremely promising” without examining which applications. The medical uses need to be researched even more carefully than the environmental uses. Much of the touted medical advances are at this point still hype. One of the most economically successful, though is a cancer drug, nano-encapsulated taxol, a breast cancer drug. It sells for $4200 a dose. Quite a bit more than the $150 a dose for generic taxol. To be fair, patients experience a little less nausea, but it does not increase their life span. Still, crazy US Medicare law forces Medicare to pay for it. Great nanotechnology for the patent holder, not so good for the rest of us.

  5. Christine Peterson Says:

    Hi Jaydee — New drugs are usually more expensive than older ones that are out of patent protection; that doesn’t have much to do with whether they use nanotechnology methods or not, I think. Eventually the new drugs’ patents will expire and they will be generic.

    I am sorry to hear that Medicare has cover the cost of a drug which is not much better, nano or not. What a weird system.

    Foresight is interested in a thorough review of the patent system and possible reforms. It’s time to review Bayh-Dole also. —Christine

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