Monday, July 19, 2004

Are nanoparticle studies 'one decade late'?

ETC Group Executive Director Pat Mooney, in a recent paper discussing nanotechnology regulatory issues, brings up a reasonable point:

    “Ironically, governments are talking about the need to be proactive, failing to admit that they’re at least one decade late: nanotech products are already commercially available and laboratory workers and consumers are already being exposed to nanoparticles that could pose serious risks to people and the environment.”

It's a question I've posed to a handful of nanotech government, business and academic leaders over the past few years, including Sean Murdock, head of the NanoBusiness Alliance; and Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University.

Here's what I asked Ausman:

    Lovy: Do you think this is developing the way it should? At the same time you're studying the health and environmental effects of this stuff, nanotubes are being churned out. Do you think the industry is developing faster than the research into the impact?

    Kevin Ausman: I think that the technology is developing faster than the impact research. I think that, however, the technology for any new field normally develops faster than the impact research. And compared to that normal curve, we're ahead of it. We are developing impact research far ahead of where you would expect it to happen.

And here's a snippet of my late-2003 interview with Murdock in Chicago, when he was still executive director of regional nano group AtomWorks. I knew at the time that he was a likely successor for NanoBusiness Alliance co-founder Mark Modzelewski and asked my questions with this in mind.

    Lovy: I asked the same question of Kevin Ausman: Do you think the business of nanotech is progressing faster than the research into its risks? Do you think it's progressing the way it should? Titanium dioxide (nanoparticles) has been out there since 1995. Now, CBEN is studying its effects in various situations. Fullerenes are being produced in Japan right now. CBEN is studying their effects now. Is it too late?

    Sean Murdock: Let me disaggregate that. Some things you can test for in advance. Some things you can only test as you see products used. Sometimes products are used in unexpected ways … but it's hard to know what those are until you start to have a product in use until see how people are using it. So, that's what I'm saying. It's the type of risk that we're talking about.

    Do I think there should be research that's ongoing in terms of the effects of nanoparticles on toxicity. Yes, I think that's at CBEN, I that's happening elsewhere. In the grand scheme of things, it's not like we have megatons of production of nanoparticles that are getting dispersed all over the world right now. Is there some production that's taking place? Yes.

    Lovy: Are you saying it's a nonissue today, or an overblown issue?

    Murdock: No, I'm saying it's an issue that we need to look at, balance and try to assess. I'm saying that the way that some people have tried to create fear around it, that it could kill us all and do that kind of thing, doesn't reflect the rate at which these things can propagate.

    Lovy: But is the study of environmental and health effects of nanomaterials almost an afterthought?

    Murdock: No, I would strongly disagree there because it was embedded within the NNI (National Nanotechnology Initiative) plan from the outset. There was a societal and ethical implications workshop back in 2000.

    Lovy: Do you think groups like CBEN would have received as much funding and attention now had the alarm not been sounded by groups like ETC and Greenpeace? Do you think that they fired an opening shot that forced the issue sooner than in might have otherwise been dealt with?

    Murdock: I don't know that it forced the issue sooner than it would have been dealt with. People looked at this and said, "Look, there are some issues with AgBioTech, we didn't manage the public, didn't think about unintended consequences and we're going to manage it proactively. We're going to be on top of it." The design, from the outset, of the NNI recognized that and had intended to draw these issues. Now, if you're asking, "Has it heightened attention on the issue?" The CBEN (grant) was awarded before ETC Group came out with anything.

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