Nanotech & the Precautionary Principle: a personal statement

Yesterday I wrote about a possible nanotech-based replacement for battery technology, and mentioned that I’m the daughter of a battery engineer. What I didn’t say then is that my dad died of a type of cancer which is found more often among those involved with battery manufacture.

This gives me a more vehement view than some, perhaps, of to what extent we should apply the topic of Monday’s post — the Precautionary Principle — to nanotechnology. The strong version of the Precautionary Principle demands that a technology must be proven safe before it is used. But how many technologies are perfectly safe, and how could one prove this in advance? New technologies, such as carbon nanotube ultracapacitors, should be judged in comparison to the technologies they replace, not to an imaginary standard of perfect technological safety.

We can’t go from today’s dirty, dangerous technologies to perfectly clean, safe ones overnight. It will be a gradual, iterative process, with occasional bumps in the road when we make a mistake. That’s how the real world works.

If we enforce the Precautionary Principle too strongly, battery engineers will still be dying of that cancer at higher rates decades from now. Let’s aim for realistic improvements rather than an illusion of 100% safety. —Christine

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