Monday, October 02, 2006

Technology Review: ‘"Nanotoxicity" might seem more compelling if there was an actual nano-victim out there.’

Technology Review editor David Talbot just blogged on the recent discussions about regulatory deficits for nanotechnology, suggesting that none of these arguments will gain much traction unless we see some type of catalytic event:

“Not since New Year's Eve 2000, have so many safety concerns been voiced for what--so far, anyway--seems so little reason. We're talking about nanotechnology: the catch-all term for engineering super-small features and particles to create things like ultra-sensitive medical diagnostic tools, blazingly fast electronics, and exceptionally strong materials.

There are theoretical risks. When you break something into smaller pieces, you wind up with more surface area for the same mass--making the thing potentially more reactive and more toxic. Also, super-small particles can move to places in the body where other particles can't, like the alveoli in the lungs and even past the blood-brain barrier.”

(Click here for the full article.)
His overview is especially refreshing since he is not blindly jumping on the we-need-more-regulations bandwagon that has dominated the discussions about societal impacts of nanotechnology recently:
“Yes, as with most human endeavors, the field carries potential risks to human health and the environment. But, by all appearances, the leaders in this field are on top of what is, so far, a nonproblem.

Nanotech is where breakthroughs are likely. Forget about just the cancer-detection and other advanced medical tools it's midwifing and the next-gen consumer electronics such as super-bright displays. On a planet that's on the cusp of catastrophic climate change, nano-engineered materials have the potential to make a real difference. Imagine solar power cells that are far cheaper and more efficient; batteries that allow for more efficient electric cars; components that make cleaner coal-fired power plants. These and other applications are hardly trivial--they'll save energy, reduce pollution, and maybe go a little way to making sure Times Square won't be under water for the next millennium celebration.”
The only aspect where his blog post is somewhat misleading is his interpretation of the results of a recent Wilson Center survey. The survey asked about people’s self-reported awareness of nanotech. This has little to do with knowledge or understanding, of course, but Talbot doesn’t make that distinction:
“Rich people know more about nanotech than poor people. And as a kicker: older people and women know the least about nanotech, even though they're the ones more likely to use the cosmetics and sunscreens that may contain nanoparticles.”
In the last NSF-funded national survey we did here at Wisconsin, there was no gender or income gap for nano knowledge. That is, if nano knowledge was measured as an additive index of six factual knowledge questions about scientific and economic aspects of nanotech rather than simple awareness of the issue. Which demographics were in fact more informed about nano? Younger and more educated respondents.

For more details:

Scheufele, D. A., & Lewenstein, B. V. (2005). The public and nanotechnology: How citizens make sense of emerging technologies. Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 7(6), 659-667.