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Citing Environmental Concerns, Experts Advise Caution on Nanotech
Nanotechnology may yield life-saving improvements across fields ranging from sunscreen to military equipment, but two leading scholars this week advised that industry and government should proceed with caution until more is known about its impact on the environment.
At a 90-minute cyber-chat hosted by EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS, Mark Wiesner of Rice University and Nancy Monteiro-Riviere of the North Carolina State University Center for Chemical Toxicology Research and Pharmacokinetics said that even basic information on nanotechnology remains unknown. Researchers haven't determined how the manufactured molecules move in air and in water or what happens when they are ingested by humans, animals or other organisms, they said. Nor is it known whether personal protection equipment used in the lab is sufficiently safe.
"As a general rule, it would seem prudent to avoid releasing nano-materials into the environment until we understand their potential for transport, exposure and impact," said Wiesner, director of the Environmental and Energy Systems Institute at Rice.
The scholars stressed that they did not favor a regime of regulation that would thwart or halt the development of nanotechnology, but they did urge that government and industry embark on a more ambitious program of study.
"Funding of developing novel nanotech operations far outstrips that which needs to be done to define their safety," said Monteiro-Riviere, a toxicologist. "Early industrial efforts are solely focused on proof of concept to gain additional investment. Toxicology efforts are not supported at this stage. This needs to be more balanced if we are to avoid problems in the future."
[Read the full text of the 7 December 2004 cyber-chat here.]
In simple terms, nanotechnology is the process of building industrial or medical products in the scale of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Nanotech has drawn enormous interest from industry and the medical fieldsand generated copious news coveragebecause of its many promising applications. It already is used to make sunscreen and stain-resistant cloth. Some see uses in treating heart disease or making artificial kidneys. It may also be used in sensors to detect the presence of chemical or biological agents and to construct more effective bullet-proof vests.
But few studies have been published on their environmental impact. One, published in Environmental Health Perspectives in July 2004, found that nano-particles called fullerenes, if released into water systems, can alter the brain chemistry of largemouth bass that are exposed. And tons of fullerenes are being produced every year, the study said.
Wiesner is one of the pioneers in studying how nanotechnology can be used to improve water treatment systems, and also has studied what happens to nano-materials once they enter the environment. Monteiro-Riviere is investigating how exposure of skin to nano-materials may impact occupational safety.
At the AAAS/EurekAlert! cyber-chat, both Monteiro-Riviere and Wiesner said the field is so new that there isn't even a unified lexicon on which regulations can be built. And because there are so many possible nano-products with so many uses, crafting regulations that apply broadly is difficult. Some nano-particles occur naturally and might not be harmful in specific environments; others could be toxic.
The key, they said, is to balance the promise with precaution. When a reporter in Bangladesh asked about nanotech applications which might benefit developing nations, Wiesner suggested they might be used for advanced water treatment systems; energy generation, transmission and storage; and improved building materials. "The list could go on forever," Wiesner said.
But, added Monteiro-Riviere: "My concern with nanotechnology in developing countries would be that these countries maintain occupational and environmental safety guidelines to ensure that working with nano-materials in developing these industries would not create problems that could be avoided."
Wiesner quickly concurred: "I would just add thatů those same concerns are important in developed countries as well."
EurekAlert! is the world's premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS. The cyber-chat was the first of a series funded by the William T. Golden Endowment Fund for Program Innovation. It was moderated by Phillip Szuromi, supervisory senior editor of Science. Fifteen reporters participated in the chat, representing such publications as The Economist; Chemical & Engineering News; The Daily Star (Bangladesh); NanoBiotech News; NanotechWeb.org; and UPI, among others.
January's chat will focus on nanotechnology and medicine.
Edward W. Lempinen
10 December 2004