The Debate over Nanotechnology

Image courtesy of ES&T;

Not since the advent of genetic engineering have environmentalists, scientists and policymakers been so divided over a new technology. We are talking, of course, about nanotechnology - a nascent field whose developments we've meticulously tracked at TH over the past few years.

At the risk of oversimplification, the split basically boils down to a debate pitting those who view the new technology's benefits (treating diseases, water purification, toxic cleanups, etc) as far outstripping its potential downsides - and believe any regulation should reflect this - and those who adopt the opposite view. "Every technology ever developed . . . has had some sort of adverse consequences, and sometimes they've been serious, sometimes not . . . It's unprecedented and would defy common sense if there weren't some problem somewhere," said J. Clarence Davies, a senior adviser to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), who takes a more pessimistic approach to nanotechnology's potential.

Although so-called nanomaterials have yet to cause any illnesses or problems in humans, a number of studies have shown that they can be harmful to animals; fullerenes, for example, were found to cause oxidative stress in the brains of largemouth bass in a recent study done by researchers from three different institutions. Indeed, because of their small size and malleability, many scientists are worried about the dangers they could pose if they form noxious interactions with different human systems.

On the other hand, most recognize that nanotechnology research will need to continue, as will the production of nanomaterials, because of the projected boom in the industry over the coming years - which could create a $2.6 trillion market by 2014 according to the research firm Lux Research. This has prompted many scientists to redouble their efforts to better understand the effects and potential consequences of nanomaterial use. The problem, as Andrew Maynard put it, is that this research has been heretofore "woefully underfunded":

"We still don't have a clear strategy on what research needs to be done and how that's going to be done. We don't have good mechanisms in place that are going to enable the research agencies to support or fund that research . . . There's a large debate going on right now, both within the regulatory agencies and outside the agencies, concerning how nanotechnology fits in with the current regulatory structure," said Maynard, a science adviser to PEN.

The EPA took the first steps toward imposing some new regulations by classifying nanomaterials that act as bactericides - containing silver or any other ions - as pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Yet regulation will likely remain difficult, Maynard argues, because most regulations over the last half-century have focused primarily on chemistry; nanotechnology will present new challenges in regulating physical structures.

The difficulty in regulating nanomaterials is compounded by the fact that scientists and industry are divided over whether to consider them as "new chemicals" - which would place them under the purview of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), an EPA law that requires companies to report any new chemicals being worked on before they are allowed to enter the marketplace.

An alternative would be promoting a voluntary reporting program, such as the one recently created by the EPA - the Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program (NMSP). Under this voluntary program, companies would share all chemical/physical information on their nanomaterial products; as with all such programs, however, it remains to be seen whether industry would feel compelled to share all the details, especially if it turns out not all of it is kosher.

While much remains unknown about the potential benefits and pitfalls of nanotechnology, what is clear is that much more work and research is required before we can reach a consensus - either way. Like it or not, this new technology will be a mainstay and is only likely to extend its reach to more industries and disciplines over the coming decades. That doesn't mean we can't ensure the transition will be relatively painless and carefully vetted.

Via ::Environmental Science & Technology: The challenge of regulating nanomaterials (scientific journal)

See also: ::Nanotech & Environment: A Match Made in Heaven?, ::Green Nano: What you don't know..., ::Environment, Health, and the Nanotechnology Age: An Interview with Professor George Whitesides

Tags: Cancer | EPA | Nanotechnology


New to TreeHugger?

treehugger on phone
treehugger slideshows