Big Troubles May Lurk in Super-Tiny Tech: Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology experts say legal, ethical issues loom
San Francisco Chronicle | October 31, 2005
By Keay Davidson
"Nanomania," one could call it -- the growing excitement and anxiety about
super-small gadgets that might transform our world for better or worse.
Two decades ago, techno-visionaries titillated the world with their prophecy
of machines so small -- measurable in nanometers, or billionths of a meter
-- that they'd be invisible to the naked eye. Nano-robots, they speculated,
would patrol your bloodstream and attack viruses, cholesterol and tumors; or
they'd clean up oil slicks and toxic spills; or they'd become micro-"spies"
for monitoring enemy movements without being seen.
For now, however, those science-fiction-like dreams remain just that --
dreams. Today's nano-visionaries face a less heady dilemma: How to reassure
the public, environmental groups, regulatory agencies and lawsuit-fearing
insurance companies that nanotechnologies won't become
environmental-political-legal nightmares like DDT, thalidomide and asbestos.
Today is the opening day of the five-day International Congress of
Nanotechnology 2005 at the San Francisco Airport Marriott in Burlingame. On
Thursday, lawyer John C. Monica Jr. of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur in
Cleveland is scheduled to deliver a speech -- co-authored with two
colleagues -- on "Preparing for Future Health Litigation: The Application of
Product Liability Law to Nanotechnology."
In an advance copy of Monica's speech, he calls nanotech "one of the
foremost innovations of the 21st century." While nano-robots are still on
the drawing boards, far simpler "nanomaterials" and "nanoparticles" are
"already being used in such diverse consumer products as machine lubricant,
tennis balls, wrinkle-resistant clothing and sunscreen. In the near future,
advanced new drug-delivery systems based on nanomaterials are expected to
take the biomedical industry by storm."
"However," Monica warns, "no industry -- including the nanotechnology
industry -- is beyond the reach of American trial lawyers. Concerns about
possible health and safety hazards posed by nanomaterials are being raised
among labor unions and environmentalists; trial lawyers cannot be far
behind. Some have even begun to compare nanotechnology to asbestos, a
material plagued by $70 billion in litigation over the past three decades."
The anxieties have grown since the 1990s, as an increasing number of lab
researchers have reported evidence of certain nanomaterials' toxic effects
on living organisms. Their findings are generally regarded as preliminary,
pending more intensive study. In the meantime, as a precaution,
environmentalists and industry leaders alike, along with the leading
pro-nanotechnology group, Foresight Nanotech Institute of Palo Alto, have
called for more federally bankrolled research into safety and environmental
questions about nanotech.
Scholars also are beginning to seek a national and international debate over
"nanoethics." Their goal is to encourage intense public discussions of the
future of nanotech before that future hits us in the face.
On Tuesday, the conference in Burlingame will hold a "nanoethics" session
featuring nine speakers, led off by philosopher Patrick Lin of Santa
Barbara. On Oct. 3, Lin announced formation of a fledgling think tank, the
Nanoethics Group. This self-funded group of academics intends "to study the
societal, ethical and policy implications of nanotechnology," he said.
While nano "holds potential for great good," Lin said, it also "requires
advance study of horrific consequences." Among other things, nanoethicists
will encourage people to ponder whether it's ethical to develop certain
kinds of nanotechnologies that might potentially be misused, for example,
nanotech's use for "new, unimaginable forms of torture, such as
disassembling a person at the molecular level or worse."
Professor James Moor of the philosophy department at Dartmouth College in
New Hampshire is a long-distance member of Lin's group. "I am particularly
interested in issues of privacy," Moor said. "Now that data collection
devices are getting smaller and smaller, it will be increasingly difficult
to detect when one is being surveilled."
Environmental groups are also beginning to raise their voices about
Former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach, in a speech Oct. 24 at a
different nanotech conference in Burlingame, called for a "tenfold increase"
in federal funding of research on the potential environmental effects of
nanotech. He advised nanotech buffs not to repeat the mistakes of past
techno-utopians who assumed technological wonders could be developed without
risk: "Don't blow it. ... (There is) incredible opportunity to reduce human
suffering. ... Forget Buck Rogers. ... Offer solutions, not technologies."
In June, in an unusual example of strange political bedfellows,
chemical-industry giant DuPont Corp. and New York-based activist group
Environmental Defense issued a joint statement in the Wall Street Journal
urging the federal government to greatly boost research funding on the
possible hazards of nanotech.
The Environmental Protection Agency already is hard at work, though.
Recently the agency gave $100,000 to the Washington, D.C.-based
International Life Sciences Institute to prepare a report that recommends
lab procedures for "nanotoxicology" researchers, who test the safety of
nanomaterials. "There is some cause for concern" about nanotechnology's
health effects, said a scientist who helped to prepare the ILSI report --
Andrew Maynard, chief science adviser at the Project on Emerging
Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in
At the same time, said Maynard, to suggest that nanotech is the next
asbestos scandal is "an overreaction. There's a lot of (research) work that
needs to be done, but there is nothing indicating there's going to be a
serious problem, not at the moment."
Still, since the 1990s, many studies have reported possible health and
environmental effects of nanomaterials.
In the latest example, nanoparticles of carbon -- which, some speculate,
could be used as drug-delivery vehicles inside the body -- can "promote
blood-clotting," scientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center
and Ohio University reported Oct. 21. In a forthcoming article for the
British Journal of Pharmacology, a team led by Dr. Marek Radomski plans to
report finding in experiments with anesthetized rats that the clumps grew
big enough to block the rats' vital carotid arteries.
"This research is not a case against nanotechnology," Radomski cautioned in
a press statement. "It's difficult to overestimate the importance of this
amazing technology's ability to transform medicine. But it's good to assess
the risk of a new technology in advance."
Meanwhile, "nanoscale education" is being championed by San Francisco's
Exploratorium museum and two allied museums in Boston and Minnesota. Those
three museums will share a five-year, $20 million education grant announced
Oct. 6 by the National Science Foundation. The Exploratorium's share is
$3,764,000, said museum official Rob Semper.
As part of the grant, science foundation officials said, the museums will
prepare displays that introduce museum visitors to the "nanoworld." They'll
also hold "public forums that will allow for open discussion and debate
about issues related to nanotechnology."
Although nanotech still sounds like a glamorous new topic, it's old enough
to have begun to interest historians. An article by UC Santa Barbara
Professor W. Patrick McCray on the history of nanotech -- including its
campaigns for federal funding -- appeared in the June issue of the journal
History and Technology.
On the one hand, "I think people are skeptical of some of the hype around
nano," says McCray, who is also co-director of UCSB's new Center for
Nanotechnology in Society. He noted that "these utopian ideals crept into
the rhetoric of people advocating for technology" in the past.
"Why do people still continue to do this (today), despite the fact this
utopian rhetoric often disappoints in the long run?" he wondered.
On the other hand, McCray said, the worst-case fears of nanotech -- for
instance, the "gray goo" scenario, in which out-of-control nanomachines
devour a landscape -- are "overhyped ... and have become the poster child of
nanotechnologies run amok."
Such extreme fears are themselves potentially dangerous, he said, because
they'll distract the public from the less sensational -- yet still
potentially worrisome -- environmental issues posed by nanotech, such as
"legitimate concerns about possible issues of nanotoxicity."
Last modified November 4, 2005