Monday, October 06, 2003

The nano-brain barrier

fireIt's amazing to me how the Action Group on EROSION, Technology and Concentration  can come out in immediate opposition to a technology that prevents ... EROSION. Why is the group opposed to a new way of attacking a problem it was created to solve? Because the technology is nanosize, and ETC Group leader Pat Mooney will never fail to jerk his knee against the 'n' word, even if it's being used to advance his own organization's mission.

Mooney is quoted in Sunday's Toronto Star:

    A long-time Canadian advocate for the strict regulation of biotechnology, Mooney says he is worried about an experiment now underway on the fire-ravaged slope of a hill considered sacred by an unidentified First Nations group.

    A U.S. chemical company is treating the slope with a novel nanotech chemical that binds at the atomic level with silicate particles already in the soil, he says. That creates a tight cover over the hill, much like a porous plastic wrap. It is supposed to prevent erosion by rainfall for as long as a year.

    Because the chemical involved is well-known, regulatory agencies have allowed the experiment to go ahead without health or environmental screening, he told a recent gathering here.

    However, principles of nanotechnology show that even the most common elements, such as carbon, act much differently — chemically and physically — at the ultra-small scale. Mooney says in this case the nanoparticles are small enough to pass right through the membrane that normally protects the brain from contaminants in the blood."

    It may be wonderful technology," he says, "but they haven't investigated how it operates at the atomic level."

The "unidentified First Nations group" and the "U.S. chemical company" were both identified by the Albuquerque Journal on Aug. 14, then by Small Times in its Aug. 21 report on Sequoia Pacific Research Co. and the Taos Pueblo Native American tribe. Small Times staff writer Jeff Karoub reported that a July fire scorched more than 5,000 acres of forest and the Bureau of Indian Affairs  selected Sequoia's nanoengineered organic material to drop on 1,400 acres of charred land. The agency hopes the material will bind to the soil to protect it from erosion and stimulate growth. Karoub reported:

    (Sequoia President Richard) Maile said this is the first major application of Sequoia's soil binder, a nanostructured matrix of organic, biodegradable concentrate called SoilSET (PDF, 103 KB). Once the concentrate has been mixed with water, an electrochemical reaction creates an organic binder at the nanoscale, which sticks to soil to retain water. It also reduces runoff and helps germinate seeds.
Karoub also quotes a forest hydrologist at California's Mendocino National Forest, where the product was field-tested in 2002, as saying that the material had done its job of sticking to the soil and preventing erosion before dissolving after one year. He also quotes Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at Rice University, as saying that the product "sounds like a very safe application, and probably very good for the field."

For now, I'll take Ausman's word for it over Mooney's, since the CBEN institution is among the leaders in current research into the biological effects of nanomaterials. The issue here is, again, risk vs. benefit. Should the fact that SoilSET -- made up completely of organic material and under no current suspicion of toxicity -- has not been tested specifically for adverse effects through the blood-brain barrier prevent it from going into action in an area where it has proven itself useful: preventing erosion? Is it reasonable to tell the Taos Pueblo Native Americans that technology exists to make your land usable after a devastating forest fire, but you're out of luck? We're not clear yet on how particles behave on the nanoscale, so we still need to test it against a few thousand other scenarios. Call us in a decade or so.

Here's another tactic: Let's make some decisions based on what we do know, rather than what we don't. Here's one thing we know: Texas Tech professor David D. Allen recently demonstrated "no adverse effects" of nanomaterials "on blood-brain barrier baseline parameters." Yes, it's one study of a few varieties of nanoparticles and not by a long shot the final word on the toxicity of nanoparticles. But it is something that the "nanotech is bad for you" crowd lacks: actual scientific data.

What's seems especially surreal to me is the way Mooney and others take the issue of size, the very property that sets nano apart as such a promising technology, and create the impression that this scale is a force to be feared rather than looked upon with hope. Nanoparticles' nanosize is what gives each of them the ability to target individual cells, or clumps of them to cover larger surface areas (and in the case of SoilSET, apparently prevent erosion).

And it's in this breach of the blood-brain barrier that, for me anyway, inspires the most hope. This barrier is one of the human body's final frontiers, beyond which might lie a key to longer life, a way to make drugs more effective or even a cure for Alzheimer's.

But while they're working on that, we'll just have to settle for nanomaterials that restore Native American land that otherwise would have been lost to forest fire.


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