Nanotechnology development is sprinting forward in the US and around the world, pleasing many businesses, government agencies, and scientists, but worrying many others.
With about 60 consumer products and hundreds of other applications based on the properties of ultra-tiny particles already available, the advocates are eager to see much more. Beneficial uses could include many innovative medical applications, tools for environmental cleanup, and safety devices. Some officials predict nanotechnology will be a $1 trillion business worldwide within 10 years.
But the largely unknown health and environmental effects of nanoparticles, combined with a small but steady stream of published research identifying various health and environmental issues, has led to caution among many others. In the coming months and years, you may need to cover this volatile issue. Here's a sampling of some recent developments.
Nanoparticles created during combustion and other industrial processes can cause a range of damaging effects to nasal passages of rats and mice, with the smallest particles causing the most damage, researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Rochester reported at the 2006 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They say this is the first reported study on nanoparticles and nasal pathology. Release.
The presentation was made during one of four wide-ranging seminars on various nanotech subjects held Feb. 16-17 at the AAAS meeting. You can track down the many other experts who participated and check on their latest findings.
To keep up on many other research developments, check out the resources mentioned in TipSheets of Aug. 31, 2005, Aug. 3, 2005, and May 12, 2004.
The Allianz Group, a large industrial insurer operating worldwide, was one of the authors of a June 3, 2005, report that emphasized its concern with current nanotech trends. The company said it wants to avoid problems similar to those that hit the asbestos and benzene industries, and says there are significant gaps in understanding of the traditional and novel risks posed by nanotech.
The company concluded its report with a series of recommendations on how the many interested parties around the world could adopt a new approach and reduce and manage risk while enjoying the potential benefits of nanotech. Without such an approach, the company warns that the insurance industry could become a serious roadblock for nanotech development.
POLICY AND REGULATION
Much better government regulation of nanotechnology is needed to fill in the numerous gaps in current efforts, according to the author of a report from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, released Jan. 11, 2006. Author Terry Davies, former assistant administrator at the EPA in the George H.W. Bush administration, recommends adoption of a new law, since existing laws such as the Clean Water Act; the Clean Air Act; the Toxic Substances Control Act; the Consumer Product Safety Act; and the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act have holes too large to plug with a retroactive approach.
A similar strong push for rapid implementation of better oversight and regulation of nanotech was made in a report issued Feb. 10, 2006, by the Univ. of Minnesota's Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy.
Another supporter of improved regulation and management (and also a proponent of making California a leading nanotech R&D and commercialization center) is the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Nanotechnology. Its co-chair is US Rep. Michael Honda, D-CA.
Officials of the US government's National Nanotechnology Initiative, and the 23 federal agencies it represents, tend to be strongly averse to more regulation. NNI is on tap to receive more than $1.2 billion in President Bush's FY 2007 budget, and spends just a little under 4% of its budget on environmental, health, and safety implications for this new field.
Also in favor of the "light regulation" that currently exists, as well as voluntary programs and self-regulation by businesses and scientists, is the Pacific Research Institute.
The American Chemistry Council's Nanotechnology Panel takes a similar approach.
The US EPA is addressing the issue in part by developing a Nanotechnology White Paper, outlining the agency's approach. Public comment that will be considered by an independent panel in its review of the draft White Paper closes March 1, 2006, though the agency itself says it will continue to accept public comment for a while longer. The independent review panel will meet in mid-April 2006, and EPA may issue the final document some time in the second half of 2006.
The Environmental Law Institute's comments on the White Paper and other nanotech issues are available here.
Similar duels between advocates and observers of nanotech are occurring in some other countries. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering are cautiously optimistic about the government's nanotech report released Nov. 30, 2005, but are very concerned that there is no targeted funding to carry out the government's recommendations, and that there is a lack of collaboration between the government and industry to develop safety measures and involve the public. Release (includes a link to the government report, "Characterizing the Potential Risks Posed by Engineered Nanoparticles").
The advocacy organization ETC Group is concerned that patents being issued for nanotech products will soon create worldwide monopolies for the companies that are early in the game, and issued a June 16, 2005, report highlighting some of the issues.