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T h e P r e c a u t i o n a r y P r i n c i p l e
|Nanotechnology -- or
nanotech, for short -- is a new approach to industrial
production, based on the manipulation of things so small
that they are invisible to the naked eye and even to most
Nanotech is named for the nanometer, a unit of measure, a billionth of a meter, one one-thousandth of a micrometer. The Oxford English Dictionary defines nanotechnology as "the branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers, especially the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules." Nanotech deals in the realm where a typical grain of sand is huge (a million nanometers in diameter). A human hair is 200,000 nanometers thick. A red blood cell spans 10,000 nanometers. A virus measures 100 nanometers across, and the smallest atom (hydrogen) spans 0.1 nanometers.
In the realm below 50 nanometers, the normal laws of physics no longer apply, quantum physics kicks in and materials take on surprising new properties. Something that was red may now be green; metals may become translucent and thus invisible; something that could not conduct electricity may now pass a current; nonmagnetic materials may become magnetized; insoluble substances may dissolve. Knowing the properties of a substance in bulk tells you nothing about its properties at the nano scale, so all nano materials' characteristics -- including hazardous traits -- must be learned anew by direct experiment.
Nanotechnologists foresee a second industrial revolution sweeping the world during our lifetimes as individual atoms are assembled together into thousands of useful new products. Few deny that new products may entail new hazards, but most nanotechnologists say existing regulations are adequate for controlling any hazards that may arise. In the United States, nanotech is not now subject to any special regulations and nano products need not even be labeled. Furthermore, no one has developed a consistent nomenclature for nano materials, so rigorous discussion of nanotech among regulators and policymakers is not yet possible. Without consistent nomenclature, standardized safety testing lies in the future.
No one denies that nanotech will produce real benefits, but, based on the history of nuclear power, biotechnology and the chemical industry, skeptics are calling for a precautionary approach. The resulting clash of philosophies -- "Better safe than sorry" versus "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" or even in some cases "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" -- may offer a major test of the Precautionary Principle as a new way of managing innovation.
"World Peace, Universal
And this is just the
beginning. Nanotech wasn't possible until the invention in
the 1980s and early 1990s of ways to arrange individual
atoms under software control. Nano particles, nanotubes and
carbon nano crystals called Bucky Balls (after Buckminster
Fuller) are now being manufactured in ton quantities for
industrial use. Currently technologists are working
feverishly to coax nature's most successful nano factory,
the living cell, to grow useful new nano assemblies. It is
no exaggeration to say that the field of nanotech is gripped
by something approaching a gold rush mentality. Worldwide,
governments are spending an estimated $3 billion per year on
nanotech research, and the private sector is thought to be
spending at least that much. The U.S. government alone will
spend at least $3.7 billion on nano R&D during the next four
years. The global market for nano products is expected to
reach $1 trillion in 10 years or less. Any day of the week
you can check in at
But for some prominent proponents of nanotech, this is about more than money -- it is about reinventing the entire world, including humans, as they now exist. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, nanotechnology is the foundation stone of NBIC -- a revolutionary convergence of nanotech, biotech (manipulation of genes), info tech (computers), and cogno tech (brain function). In a report sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce, the technologists and politicians who are promoting this revolution say it is "essential to the future of humanity" because it holds the promise of "world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment." They say it may be "a watershed in history to rank with the invention of agriculture and the Industrial Revolution." The ultimate aim of this revolution has been an explicit human goal for at least 400 years -- the "conquest of nature" and the enhancement of human capabilities.
Whatever else it may offer, the nanotech revolution entails a radical new approach to industrial production with the potential to change every existing industry, plus create new ones. Typical manufacturing today -- even construction of the tiniest computer circuit -- relies on "top-down" techniques, machining or etching products out of blocks of raw material. For example, a common technique for making a transistor begins with a chunk of silicon, which is etched to remove unwanted material, leaving behind a sculpted circuit. This "top-down" method of construction creates the desired product plus waste residues.
In contrast, nanotech makes possible "bottom-up" construction in which atoms are arranged under software control -- or in ideal cases they will self-assemble, just as living cells self-assemble -- into the desired configuration with nothing left over, no waste. Instead of cutting trees into lumber to make a table, why not just "grow" a table? Thus nanotech seems to offer the possibility of waste-free manufacturing and therefore a cleaner environment. Furthermore, nanotech may help remediate past pollution. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is funding research on releasing nano particles into the environment to detoxify mountains of toxic waste remaining from the 20th century's experiment with petroleum-based chemistry.
Insuring a Nanotech
In the longer term, some leading technologists like Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the first reading machine for the blind, and Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, fear that nanotech will give individuals -- inadvertently or intentionally -- destructive potential greater than the power of atomic weapons. As Joy wrote in 2000, "I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals."
Others, such as the insurance industry, have more mundane concerns about nanotech -- chiefly, the potential health and environmental hazards of tiny particles. In May of this year, Swiss Re, the world's second-largest reinsurance firm, issued a report calling for the Precautionary Principle to guide nanotech development. Swiss Re itemized a host of potential problems that it says need to be resolved before nanotech products are fully deployed, including these:
Nano particles may harm living tissue, such as lungs, in at least two ways -- through normal effects of chemical reactivity, or by damaging phagocytes, which are scavenger cells that normally remove foreign substances. Phagocytes can become "overloaded" by nano particles and cease functioning. Worse, overloaded phagocytes retreat into deeper layers and so become unavailable to protect against foreign invaders. Successive particles are then able to do their full reactive damage, and other invaders, such as bacteria, may penetrate unhindered.
The surface reactivity of nano particles gives rise to "free radicals," which are atoms containing an "unsatisfactory" number of electrons (either too few or too many for stability). Free radicals swap electrons with nearby atoms, creating further instabilities and setting off a cascade of effects. Free radicals give rise to inflammation and tissue damage, and may initiate serious harm, such as growth of tumors. On the other hand, some free radicals are beneficial, destroying invaders. So the role of nano particles in producing free radicals remains to be clarified.
Precaution on a Super-Small Scale
Swiss Re notes that, in the past, the drive toward rapid technological innovation has "prevented the introduction of the Precautionary Principle in relation to new technologies for more than 20 years." But now, "in view of the dangers to society that could arise out of the establishment of nanotechnology, and given the uncertainty currently prevailing in scientific circles, the Precautionary Principle should be applied whatever the difficulties," Swiss Re asserts. "The Precautionary Principle demands the proactive introduction of protective measures in the face of possible risks, which science at present -- in the absence of knowledge -- can neither confirm nor reject."
What would precaution look like in a rapidly developing field like nanotech? The British Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering issued a nanotech report in July 2004 recommending a series of precautionary actions, with the following chain of reasoning:
These recommendations reverse the traditional approach to industrial materials, which have historically been assumed benign until shown otherwise.
The Royal Society puts the burden of producing information about safety on industry, not on the public: "A wide range of uses for nanotubes and nanoparticles is envisaged that will fix them within products. ... We believe that the onus should be on industry to assess ... releases [of nano particles from products] throughout a product's lifetime (including at the end-of-life) and to make that information available to the regulator." From such a recommendation, it is a very short step to the European Union's precautionary proposal for industrial chemicals, called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals), which is often summarized as, "No data, no market."
The Royal Society recommended that the use of zinc oxide nano particles and iron oxide nano particles in cosmetics should "await a safety assessment" -- in other words a moratorium on these products is recommended. Likewise, "the release of free manufactured nanoparticles into the environment for [pollution] remediation (which has been piloted in the USA) should be prohibited until there is sufficient information to allow the potential risks to be evaluated as well as the benefits."
The Precautionary Principle is sometimes called the foresight principle. Importantly, the Royal Society's report fully embraces foresight for nanotechnology (and all other new technologies):
"Our study has identified important issues that need to be addressed with some urgency" and so it is "essential" for government to "establish a group that brings together representatives of a wide range of stakeholders to look at new and emerging technologies and identify at the earliest possible stage areas where potential health, safety, environmental, social, ethical and regulatory issues may arise and advise about how these might be addressed." The group must provide "an early warning of areas where regulation may be inadequate for specific applications of these technologies."
And, finally, "The work of this group should be made public so that all stakeholders can be encouraged to engage with the emerging issues."
Thus nanotech is sparking not only a new industrial revolution but demands for a reversal of traditional approaches to managing innovation and a turn toward precautionary action.
Whether the momentum gathering behind the precautionary approach can redirect the charge behind nanotech -- a confluence of government and technophile advocates in alliance with an emerging industrial lobby -- remains uncertain.
Peter Montague is executive director of the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Environmental Research Foundation, and editor of Rachel's Environment and Health News.
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