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Devil and the Deep Blue Sea?

Scientists instinctively love nanotechnology, which is why they shouldn't be in charge of it.

By | November 1, 2007

Just because I am an ethicist does not mean I am opposed to making money, particularly when it comes with solid scientific discoveries that benefit human kind. The field of nanotechnology carries that promise. Unfortunately, many ecorestoration, environmentalist, or "green movement" corporations are more concerned with greener wallets than a greener world.

Planktos is a for-profit ecorestoration company, based in San Francisco, which aims to restore damaged habitats. Its plan is to release "forest-sized areas" of nano-sized particles of zero-valent iron (ZVI) into the ocean, with the hope that plankton will take up that iron, engage in enhanced photosynthesis, consume greater quantities of carbon dioxide from the environment, and curb global warming.

Planktos is not the only group seeking to capitalize upon the convergence of the green movement. Green building, using the advances of nanotechnology, could make our houses better insulated, more brightly lit with less energy, more efficient in countless ways, or nearly indestructible. This fall, the Green Technology Forum, a research and advising firm on nanotechnology, released a report that lauded "how a single nanotech innovation is saving one company $2.6 million in energy costs and reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by 35 million pounds per year."

This all sounds great, but early findings about Planktos' technology have not produced encouraging results, and multiple prominent scientists and environmental groups have debunked or dismissed the company's claims. Planktos is promoting bad science, which gives good and important science, namely nanotechnology, a bad name.

What is troubling here is that nanotechnology, being embraced the world over as the panacea for all that ails the way our materials work or our drugs react in the body, is being utilized in ways that at the very least could be described as reckless or, at the worst, harmful to the public perception and the progress of these technologies. The long-term implications of releasing ZVI into the oceans are not known. How will the currents carry these particles? How long and to what effect will the iron affect plankton plumes? What kind of warnings do we put on the houses of people living with paints with nanoparticles in them or whose walls of their homes are made of nanocomposites? Could these nanocomposites become the asbestos or lead for the 21st century?

What is also troubling is that there is no single body or organization responsible for monitoring nanotechnologies in any given arena - public health, environmental health, or other areas. We have no idea what the standards for risk assessment in these arenas should be. No single group governs or determines this, nor is there consensus.

There are a couple schools of thought. One says leave it alone, given that we are regularly exposed to all kinds of nano-sized particles from foods, pollution, drugs, cosmetics, and others. Another approach emphasizes being "responsible," encouraging caution and thoughtfulness, but it never defines what "responsible" really means. Others espouse the "precautionary principle," stating that if there is the potential for harm to the environment or the public, the burden of proof is on the scientists to prove that the technology is safe.

I think there's something more subtle that must be addressed. We can't expect scientists alone to conduct "responsible" research, given that they tend to embrace technology, and therefore approach the question with a bias. Leaving it to companies who have an incentive to release the technology, and start turning profits, is also not the way to go. Consequently, ethicists and the general public must be engaged in discussions about which of the technologies will be developed, when and where they will be introduced, and how they will be evaluated for safety.

We need a pragmatic approach to thinking about these technologies, which falls somewhere between the Draconian rule of the precautionary principle and the free-love view of the Wild West nano-loving scientists. And I am quite confident that such a path does not take us toward a giant iron dump near the Galapagos, nor a nano-house.

Glenn McGee is the director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College, where he holds the John A. Balint Endowed Chair in Medical Ethics.gmcgee@the-scientist.com

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Comments

November 5, 2007

The best methodology will be to test the technology in a confined environment with a recreated ecosystem over 5 or 10 years...and see the ecological impact of such technology. I certainly think the responsible US gov. ints. will have to approve it before any step is taken in the wild.
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

November 28, 2007

If there is a company promoting bad science which could give nanotechnology a bad name, and scientists are fairly sure the technology won't work, how does that add up to taking control of nanotechnology away from scientists? That logic argues that scientists should be in charge. \n\nI would also point out that scientists are never in charge of what happens with their discoveries, and they clearly aren't in this case either, which makes the article's argument moot. Who/what is in charge of how discoveries are used is the economy (entrepreneurs/investors/corporations interacting with consumers) that buys/supports it somehow. That is how products get made and sold, that is how we all get grants, that is even how bombs and tanks are created. Planktos is not going to do this for free. Somehow the economy is going to support it or it will just die. \n\nFurther, this Planktos nanotechnology isn't a very good example of something that will give nanotechnology a bad name. Bad names come from human deaths or deaths of ecosystems and species. That's unlikely here. On the other hand, there are various "nanoparticles" that are already being shown to be likely to trigger lung cancer and penetrate into lung tissue cells, never to be metabolized. Now that will give nanotechnology a bad name. \n\nPersonally, I am allergic to the word "nanotechnology" because it really doesn't describe anything. It's mostly another name for chemistry and and can be wrapped around almost anything small. It's a marketing department term if you ask me, far less descriptive than "plastic" or a myriad of other terms. Consequently, what I predict will happen when some "nanotechnology" gets serious bad press is that the term will just die.
Avatar of: Gordon Couger

Gordon Couger

Posts: 3

November 28, 2007

Risk management is a well developed field. It only need to be properly applied to new areas.\n\nThose that don't understand the technology can't estimate, quantify or regulate the risks. No matter how distasteful it is the only people that can understand the risk of nano-technology or any other field are the ones the created it and use it. \n\nNo elected or appointed official, ethicist or NGO has a chance of understanding it in a reasonable time frame. The world could end in heat death before they make up their minds.
Avatar of: Tony

Tony

Posts: 6

November 28, 2007

Surely no one in the US would, the supposed benefits are to everyone, not just the US, and that's hardly something we're keen on. But as to the main issue, there's no doubt in my mind that it's going to take people outside of science to draw the line. Let's hope you scientists don't go the way of our more rabid capitalists, buying off (corrupting) those entrusted with keeping an eye on the public good.
Avatar of: Red Pine

Red Pine

Posts: 39

November 29, 2007

Don't worry about regulating nanotechnology. When a given business decides to accept a new technology they know, or should know, that they are taking a risk. They know that if their product turns into a health hazard, or even just a percieved health hazard, they are dead meat. Politically and financially.\n\n The world is about risk NOT certainty. Nobody "knows" or has a chance of calculating the risk of something new. Don't bother trying to find anyone to give control of the situation. You'll just hamper potentially productive research and make things worse.\n\n I am not worried at all. If someone using a new technology gets in trouble, especially if they are a big business, they are dead meat. If a government program involving nanotechnology goes foul we would just get mad at the government. Which wouldn't change anything, since firing government employees tends to be difficult. We have a post office worker who doesn't even deliver the mail most days. We have a handful of pedophiles as public school teachers and we have a hard time firing even them. \n\n The real worry is what might happen if the government takes control of the situation. They can do serious damage and the president/project leader/scientists get most of the blame. Or they just slow down research with insane safety regulations involving 5-10 year tests to try to detect potential problems in nanotechnology improved housing. \n\n I believe the choice should be the individual customers. Do you want to risk living in a house with nano-improved walls? Your choice not mine. I don't know the risk so why should a force you to not live in that house? I don't run your life and I shouldn't. Or maybe I want to take the risk. Say I am a 50 year old man (i'm not that old yet), do you, or does anyone else, have the right to not let me try a new invention? Adults aren't kids. They have grown up. I know the technology is new and I am willing to take the risk.\n\n Pioneers take the risk. Pioneers take the blame. Or the praise. Thats the way it always is.

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