Monday, May 08, 2006

Size matters - public opinion doesn't

Canberra Times, 8th May 2006
The release last month of a Federal Government discussion paper on the development of a national nanotechnology strategy created ‘nano ripples’ throughout the community – so small as to be imperceptible to the human eye. Nanotechnology is being heralded as the next industrial revolution, redefining life as we know it, but with only one month for public comment, the development of a national strategy to manage the most powerful and transformative technology in human history will involve less public participation than a development application to retrofit your local pub. Given the stakes, it is high time that we sat up and started paying attention to the way this technology is set to reshape our world – and in whose interests.

The release of the discussion paper coincided with the first ever recall of a nanotechnology product. In Germany, there were 39 cases of serious respiratory problems and six people were hospitalized in late March after using the nanotech bathroom cleaner "Magic Nano". While it is not yet clear if nanotechnology is to blame for these health problems, the important point is that no government anywhere regulates nano-scale materials if the same chemical substance has been vetted at the macro-scale. Yet it is precisely because nano materials behave differently to their macro-scale counterparts that they are attracting so much investment and research interest.

Nanoparticles are generally understood to be particles below 100 nano metres in size (about one eighty thousandth of the width of a human hair) that take advantage of property changes that occur at the nano-scale. Nano-scale materials may be more reactive, have different optical, magnetic and electric properties, and be much stronger or more toxic than their larger scale counterparts. For example, aluminum oxide - used in dentistry because of its inertness - can spontaneously explode at the nano- scale and is currently being tested as a potential rocket fuel.

There are a wide range of concerns with nanotechnology, not least of which is the issue of nanotoxicity. The defense systems of the human body are generally not designed to deal with such small particles. In general, nanoparticles of 70 nanometres can enter the lungs, a 50 nm particle can enter cells and a 30 nm particle can pass through the blood / brain barrier.

In response to concerns over health and environmental safety, the Royal Society in the United Kingdom released a report in 2004 with a series of wide ranging recommendations. They recommend that “Until more is known about the environmental impacts of nanoparticles and nanotubes, their release into the environment should be avoided as far as possible”; and that “Ingredients in the form of nanoparticles undergo a full safety assessment before they are permitted for use in products”.

The problem is that the regulators are not listening. As the scientific evidence of nano hazards continues to mount, so does the number of products containing nanoparticles that are already on the shelves – from sunscreens to cosmetics, car parts and even food.

Beyond the immediate health and environmental risks, the more complex and far-reaching implications of nanotechnology are a little further up the development pipeline. Molecular manufacturing techniques for putting together products atom-by-atom and the merging of non-living nano-materials and living organisms have the power to literally re-make our world from the atom up, and to fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world.

However, readers of the discussion paper issued by the Australian Government’s National Nanotechnology Taskforce would be none the wiser about such issues. The aim of the paper seems to be to reassure the reader that nanotechnology isn’t really new and certainly isn’t anything to worry about. The speculative benefits of nanotechnology are pronounced with certainty from on high, while questions of risk, and even known hazards are heavily qualified and the waters muddied.

It is clear that there is an urgent and growing regulatory gap, where nano product development is being fast-tracked at the expense of environmental health and safety. If recommendations from the Royal Society, one of the world’s most conservative and well-respected scientific bodies haven’t triggered a regulatory response, it is unclear what will. Perhaps the nanotechnology industry is waiting for the same kind of consumer and environmental backlash that emerged over genetically engineered foods?

The transformative power of the new nanotechnologies signals that it is time for us to take the democratisation of science seriously. Over the past 200 years, scientists have altered our world as much, if not more than elected officials, yet they are accountable to nobody save the corporations that increasingly fund them. We need a new way of thinking about science and technology that allows the development of technology to be shaped by the needs of the community and the environment — not the other way around. Just as scientists are exploring uncharted territory through the emerging nanotechnologies, so must we also explore uncharted territory in terms of how these technologies are managed — and crucially, in whose interests. The development of a nanotechnology strategy for Australia deserves far more public involvement and scrutiny than it is currently being given.

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