Foresight Nanotech Update 58
A publication of the Foresight Nanotech Institute
by Christine L. Peterson
The last couple of months have been dedicated to rapidly putting together our big fall conference, being held this year in collaboration with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers with support from Battelle. I doubt that a nanotech meeting of this quality has ever been assembled so quickly before, and it took a strong group to do it. Thanks go to our internal staff and the SME staff, especially Lauralyn McDaniel who is coordinating the SME team. When you get to the meeting in October, please stop by registration and meet the organizers.
The big news internally here at Foresight is that we have a new President, Dr. Pearl Chin. You can read about her background elsewhere in this issue, so here we'll focus on expressing our appreciation toward everyone who participated in the lengthy process of filling this key position. I would include in this all the other candidates we spoke with, each of whom had unique insights to offer on Foresight goals and whom we hope to keep involved in various roles going forward. The Board of Directors would especially like to thank Gayle Pergamit, Pierluigi Zappacosta, and Jennifer Miller for their help in talking with candidates.
Also new at Foresight is Outreach Manager (and Office Manager) Alicia Isaac, already indispensable. She's only been here a few months, but many of you have already met her by email or phone. Some of you got to meet her in person at our recent NSTI reception display, staffed also by Director of Education Miguel Aznar. Thanks to all who stopped by our booth and Miguel's poster.
The Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, a nonprofit allied with Foresight, has launched their new website designed by Netconcepts. Congratulations, and we add our thanks to Netconcepts founder Stephan Spencer, whose firm handles Foresight's mass email and search engine optimization on a pro bono basis.
Perhaps the strongest kudos in this issue must go to Foresight's departing staff "alumni." Outgoing president Jillian Elliott made a big difference here at Foresight, perhaps most significantly by organizing several successful Roadmap Working Group meetings at the national labs managed by Battelle. We knew, when her round-trip commute reached four hours a day, that she would need to rotate back into the private sector, and wish her excellent ongoing success. Also greatly missed is Lori Fiato, former Executive Assistant, whose commute also grew unmanageable as the Silicon Valley economy has rebounded recently. Lori recruited her replacement before her departure, yet another example of her high achievement standards at Foresight.
Judy Conner, Director of Communications, has transitioned to volunteer status, and continues to work in that role. We plan to continue to also call on Jillian and Lori, who have already assisted with advice, just as we do earlier Foresight alumni Marcia Seidler and Elaine Tschorn—staff warmly remembered from years past. Thanks to all, and to stalwart contributors Jim Lewis, Ben Harper, and Philippe Van Nedervelde as well.
Christine L. Peterson is Foresight's Founder and Vice President. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Foresight Nanotech Institute Policy Issues Brief
by Jacob Heller and Christine Peterson
Although the field of nanotechnology is relatively new, concerns are already arising that nanomaterial may prove toxic to humans or the environment. An emerging body of studies reveals that we are simply uncertain on what effects, if any, nanoparticles will have on the environment, health, and safety (EHS). More must be done to clear up this uncertainty, so that whatever impacts nanotechnology may have can be appropriately dealt with in a proactive matter, before serious problems arise. However, it would not be prudent to completely halt nanotech development on EHS grounds, since nanotechnologies may prove extremely beneficial to both the environment and human health in the long term.
Some studies on the EHS effects of nanotechnology appear to indicate that nanoparticles have the potential to be unsafe. One early study, in which the introduction of buckyballs into water with largemouth bass significantly increased cellular damage to brain tissue, has since been cast into doubt.1 In other studies, nanotubes were found to cause significant damage to the lungs when inhaled.2 Other theoretical concerns have been raised, since some nanoparticles have the unique ability to easily pass through cell walls and can permeate the blood-brain barrier. Some nanoparticles may also be bactericidal, which means that they could be highly damaging if introduced into ecosystems where bacteria are at the bottom of the food chain.
However, these studies are preliminary and concerns are mostly speculation. Other research has found that most nanoparticles do not pose a serious threat to human and environmental safety, and many industry leaders and researchers believe that in theory nanoparticles should be benign.3 Currently, we are simply uncertain as to what EHS problems nanotechnology may pose.4
Nanotechnology may also offer many benefits for human health and the environment. The very properties of nanoparticles that make them potentially dangerous, such as their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier or destroy specific cells, make them excellent candidates for advanced medication and new drug delivery methods, and could hold the cure for diseases like cancer and AIDS.5 Nanotechnologies that are in development today can also help monitor pollution, lower energy requirements, and reduce the use of harmful cleansing chemicals. Adopting a strict "precautionary principle", and halting all research in nanotechnology, would rob humanity of nanotech’s many benefits indefinitely.
It would be beneficial to discover and appropriately deal with any EHS issues that nanotechnologies may present as they arise, while still allowing for nanotech innovation to progress. Not only would this approach help avoid human suffering and damage to the environment that may result for certain nanoparticles, but it would ensure that costly legal battles and a widespread backlash against nanotechnologies is avoided. A better understanding of the EHS impact of nanotechnologies would also clarify the regulatory landscape, which would help foster a favorable nanotech business climate — nanotech businesses are already withholding investments because they are afraid the "ground will shift underneath them".6
To further our understanding of what risks nanotechnology may present, Foresight recommends that governments allocate substantially more funding towards studying the EHS implications of nanotechnology. In FY 2006, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) allocated around $38.5 million — less than 4% of its budget — to studying the EHS implications of nanotechnology. A substantial increase, to at least $100 million, will probably be necessary to more fully research the EHS implications of nanotechnology.7 Given past histories with substances such as DDT, asbestos, and lead paint, higher spending on studying EHS risks is warranted since it can avoid trillions of dollars in legal battles and cleanup costs. Most important, it would allow policymakers and government agencies to make proactive policies that manage and prevent possible harms to EHS.
2Raloff, Janet. "Nano Hazards: Exposure to minute particles harms lungs, circulatory system". Science News Online Vol. 167, No. 12, March 19, 2005. http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20050319/fob1.asp
3Small Times Magazine. "Nanotechnology: Are Safety Concerns Real Or Imagined? Experts Disagree". May 3, 2006. http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=11460
5de Grey, Aubrey. "Increasing Health and Longevity of Human Life". The Foresight Institute. http://foresight.org/challenges/health002.html
Foresight Nanotech Update 58 Spring 2007
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