Paying Attention to the Little Things

We need to devote greater attention and resources to the safety and environmental concerns that nanotechnology raises

Nanotechnology promises to revolutionize everything from medicine to engineering, indicating that thinking big may soon involve thinking small.  To realize this promise, the government, researchers, and industry must pay greater attention to safety and environmental concerns.

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular level; it is a fast-growing technology that is applicable across a wide array of fields. Potential applications include low-cost solar power, smart anti-cancer therapeutics that deliver drugs only to tumor cells, and storing the equivalent of the Library of Congress in a device the size of a sugar cube.

Without greater attention and resources devoted to the safety and environmental concerns that nanotechnology raises, however, these innovations may be slowed or even stymied, and people and the environment could be significantly harmed. Business leaders, scientists, and politicians from both sides of the aisle agree that greater knowledge of safety concerns will benefit everyone. We must increase knowledge about the risks of nanotechnology, both within the scientific community and the larger public.

Nanotechnology is already driving a rapidly growing industry, and the economic benefits from the research will only increase as more is learned about the unique properties and applications of nanomaterials. There are currently over 300 products on the global market with nanoparticles in them, as well as over 600 nanotech raw materials and pieces of industrial equipment. About a third of these products are intended to be ingested or applied to the skin.

Products incorporating nanotechnology generated $32 billion in sales in 2005, and a Lux Research report predicts that in 8 years it will explode into a $2.6 trillion global market.  The U.S. government recognizes the tremendous potential of nanotechnology, and devotes billions of dollars to nanotech research in several different federal agencies.

Despite the tremendous amount of money spent on nanotech research, very little is devoted to safety and environmental concerns.  Nanotechnology presents novel health and regulatory concerns:  the nanoparticles that make stronger materials are much slower to degrade and could pass more easily from organs to the bloodstream and back, creating both environmental and toxicity concerns.

Very little is known about the risks of nanotechnology; of the over 80,000 peer-reviewed journal articles on toxicology in the last six years, only 0.6% mentioned nanoparticles.  There is also insufficient funding for safety research. The U.S. government is spending $1.06 billion on nanotech research and development in 2006, yet the government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) estimates that only $38.5 million will be spent on risk-related research. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars put the amount spent on highly relevant risk-related research at only $10.8 million. Either way, the government is spending less than four percent of nanotech research dollars on safety-related concerns. A recent National Academies report calls for increased safety research, and scientists and business leaders assert that funding should be at least two to four times as much as current levels. 

Safety research also suffers from a lack of coordination and research prioritization. In 2005, the House Committee on Science charged the NNI with creating a detailed research strategy for environmental, safety, and health research needs. Almost a year later, the NNI released the report, which provided only a list of research needs and not a unified strategy prioritizing them. Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordan (D-TN) called the report “juvenile,” and Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) declared, “we’re sauntering down [the right path] at a time when a sense of urgency is required.”  Industry and scientific experts concur that a more detailed report will be needed to effectively address current safety research shortcomings.  

The lack of adequate safety knowledge threatens our health, the environment, and the nanotech industry as a whole. Most nanotechnology will likely turn out to be harmless, and increased research and funding will create guidelines for utilizing the technology safely, but implementing rapid technological advances with unknown safety risks could negatively impact public opinion if unforeseen problems arise.

Companies are extremely wary about the public’s reaction to nanotechnology, fearing another public relations fiasco similar to that with genetically modified food. Arden Bement, Director of the National Science Foundation, warned, “I came up through nuclear technologies and I know what happened to that industry…it didn’t have adequate dialogue with the public…we have to avoid that.”

The general public knows little about nanotechnology, but remains very positive; in a recent poll, only 20 percent of people said they knew anything about nanotechnology, but twice as many people thought the benefits would outweigh the risks as thought the risks were greater than the benefits. However, there have already been overblown nanotech health scares. In Europe, a product called Magic Nano was taken off the market after 110 people complained of coughing and chest pain, although further study revealed that the product contained no nanoparticles at all. In order to maintain public support, scientists and industry must educate the public about nanotechnology, including realistic descriptions of health risks.

Nanotechnology promises great scientific advances, and it would be unfortunate to see that potential compromised by a lack of adequate safety and environmental research.  Knowledge of the risks posed by nanotechnology must be improved within the scientific community through increased funding for nanotech-related risks, and in the public through adequate and honest education about the realistic benefits and dangers posed by nanotechnology. To head off future public concerns, both real and imagined, and make full use of the potential of nanotechnology, we need to spend time thinking about the novel risks posed by nanotechnology as well as the novel benefits.

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Sam Berger

Former Vice President, Democracy and Government Reform