Soenke Zehle on Thu, 25 Jul 2002 09:05:26 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> No Small Matter: The Dangers of Nanotech Particles


The ETC Group announces the release of a new, 8-page Communique entitled,
"No Small Matter: Nanotech Particles Penetrate Living Cells and Accumulate
in Animal Organs."

The full text of "No Small Matter" is available on the ETC website:

Discussions of the potential dangers of nanotechnology (that is,
manipulating matter on the scale of the nanometer, one billionth of a meter)
have been carried out in the realm of theory or in the safe, fictional realm
of Hollywood movies: will scientists someday be able to create
self-assembling nanobots programmed to produce commercial goods and food and
new forms of life?  What might happen if they do?  There has been virtually
no discussion, however, of the potential danger of today's applied
nanotechnology (that is, manipulating matter on the scale of the nanometer
to produce useful materials)--until now.  Researchers have just begun to ask
the most basic questions about the impact of new nano-materials on human
health and the environment.  Evidence of nanoparticle contamination in
living organisms and unanswered questions about potential dangers of new
forms of carbon require urgent societal review.


Issue:  At a mid-March fact-finding meeting at the US
EnvironmentalProtection Agency (EPA), researchers reported that
nanoparticles are showing up in the livers of research animals, can seep
into living cells, and perhaps piggyback on bacteria to enter the food
chain.  The commercial use of nanoscale carbon was likened to either "the
next best thing to sliced bread or the next asbestos."  Despite these
revelations, there is no regulatory body (and no plans for one) dedicated to
overseeing this potent and powerfully invasive new technology.

Context:  Touted as the greenest and greatest techno-fix ever, proponents
claim that these atomic-scale manipulations will solve our environmental
woes and guarantee - not only sustainable, but perpetual - development.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter, working with elements in the
Periodic Table (atoms and atom clusters [molecules] in the range of a
nanometer [nm], one billionth of a meter).  At the nanoscale, atoms function
in the fabled realm of quantum physics, where ordinary elements can exhibit
extraordinary strength, temperature tolerance, colors, chemical reactivity,
and electrical conductivity - characteristics inconceivable at micro or
macro scales.  Companies are already cranking out tons of commercial
nanomaterials for use as catalysts, in cosmetics, paints, coatings, fabrics,
and to provide added strength.  Some of the materials are familiar compounds
that have never before been marketed on the nanoscale; other materials are
atomically-modified elements that do not exist in nature.  Some new forms of
carbon (a component of all living things) - called nanotubes and fullerenes
- are being manufactured for the first time and their impact on the
environment is unknown.

Implications:  Nanotechnology - including nanobiotechnology - has been
pegged by industry and governments to become the world's largest and fastest
industrial revolution - dwarfing history's past technological upheavals.
More than 450 dedicated nanotech enterprises are already in the marketplace
manufacturing a host of "old-nano" products (e.g., particles used in
cosmetics and sprays) and "new-nano" products (e.g., chips, sensors and new
forms of carbon).  Global R & D spending is at US$4 billion.  The US
National Science Foundation predicts that within ten years the entire
semiconductor industry and half of the pharmaceutical industry will rely on
nanotechnology and that, by 2015, the global market will be US$1 trillion.
Industry will fight hard to make sure that health and environmental concerns
do not derail the progress of nanotech, as has happened with biotech.

Policy:  Because nanotech generally works with the elemental building blocks
of life - rather than with life directly - it has largely evaded social,
political and regulatory scrutiny.  The US Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) has thus far established no policies or protocols for considering the
safety of nano-particles in products already on the market.  Given the
concerns raised over nanoparticle contamination in living organisms, Heads
of State attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development in
Johannesburg (Aug. 26-Sept. 4, 2002) should declare an immediate moratorium
on commercial production of new nanomaterials and launch a transparent
global process for evaluating the socio-economic, health and environmental
implications of the technology.

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