We must not be blinded by science
Nanotechnology will revolutionise our lives - it should be regulated
Thursday June 12, 2003
The government's announcement yesterday that it is commissioning the Royal Society to undertake an investigation into the benefits and problems of nanotechnology suggests that it might - perhaps - be about to learn from some of the mistakes it made over biotechnology and GM foods. Regulating GM proved difficult because we didn't legislate fast enough. GM products were already commercially established before regulation came into effect. Now nanotech products are already appearing on supermarket shelves and, unless we act very quickly, any negative social or environmental consequences will have become reality before the legislation catches up.
Nanotechnology is the catch-all term for the manipulation of particles at the nano-scale - one billionth of a metre - to enhance or change a material's properties and commercial value. This shift in scale is from manipulating genes (GM) to manipulating molecular structure itself.
The commercial value of nanotech stems from the simple fact that the laws of physics don't apply at the molecular level. Quantum physics kicks in, meaning the properties of materials change. Titanium dioxide, for example, is used in sunscreens for its ability to reflect the sun's light and harmful UV rays. At its nanoscale, it stops reflecting light and therefore becomes transparent - and thus more commercially useful - while maintaining its ability to reflect harmful UV rays. Unfortunately, transparency isn't the only change. Scientists from Oxford have observed that at nanoscale titanium dioxide can also pass through the skin and damage the DNA of cells. Yet there is currently no legal requirement for any independent toxicity tests for these nanoscale particles.
And while the technology is smaller than ever before, the business is big. Current global spending on nanotech is in excess of #2.42bn, and by 2015 is predicted to exceed #600bn every year. Over 30 governments have launched nanoscience initiatives, and there are around 500 nanotech companies involved, covering everything from electronics and defence, to energy, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, fabrics and cosmetics.
The proponents of nanotech - mainly those businesses with most to gain from it - claim it will eradicate poverty, hunger and drudgery. It is hard to see how when one considers either the existing nanotech products - transparent sunscreen, self-cleaning glass, ever-more destructive weaponry and stain-resistant clothes. Or the key research initiatives now being pursued - food packaging that changes colour when the food inside starts to spoil, and a clear, tasteless drink containing nanoparticles which could be activated in a microwave to produce whatever taste the consumer desires. The risk we face is that nanotech, like GM, will be primarily about providing a profitable "techno fix" for the problems of the affluent.
No regulatory body has taken the lead to ensure that nanotech applications are safe and many of the hard questions have not yet been asked: who will control nanotechnology? What mischief can synthetic nanoparticles create floating around in our ecosystem, food supply and bodies?
There is no conclusive data on the toxicity of nanotech products - even those already in the shops. What little research that has been done tells us the toxicity of nano-scale particles of any substance is significantly greater than a "macro" scale amount of the same substance. This is no surprise: while the regulations regard a nanoparticle and a "macro" particle of the same chemical as "substantially equivalent" - with the same toxicity and impact - it is precisely because their properties differ in commercially useful ways that makes them interesting to business.
The reality is that no one really knows what the long-term effects of manipulating matter at the atomic level is likely to be. We must therefore adopt a moratorium on the commercial production of nanotech until we can establish a regulatory framework, including regulations on liability for the negative impacts of nanotech and strict labelling requirements and compulsory assessments of their effects. .
Unfortunately, proponents of the new technology have learned from GM. Already they are presenting nanotech as a "scientific" issue rather than a societal one.
Policymakers must not fall for this doublespeak, and must ask the right questions about nanotech's social and environmental impacts: its effects on employment (if we can replace copper with carbon nanotubes, for example, what will be the future of those in Zambia who depend on the copper industry?), on human health and on biodiversity. The most immediate priority must be to prevent those with most to gain from the new technology from winning a regulatory race before government even arrives at the starting line.
7 Caroline Lucas is a Green party MEP for the south-east of England