Nanotechnology: Activists throw baby out with bathwater

First, I should state that I yield to no one when it comes to caring about the environment. That’s what got me interested in nanotechnology in the first place, and a large part of why Foresight was founded in 1986 and keeps going today.

So I was disappointed with the recent press release from a large number of activist groups demanding strong restrictions on nanotech. Their position involves an underlying assumption that nanotech, overall, will be more harmful to the environment than the technologies we are using today — the technologies that nanotech will replace. This assumption is unproven and quite possibly wrong. Nano watchers know that nanotechnologies are being widely used already in products designed to lessen the burden on the environment.

In the longer term, we can expect even more improvements, since by its very nature, nanotech is about gaining better control of what we do with matter. The ultimate goal is the complete elimination of chemical pollution.

The press release sounds good until you think hard about it. For example:

IV. Environmental Protection: A full lifecycle analysis of environmental impacts must be completed prior to commercialization.

Who could object to that, right? Well, here’s the problem: that’s difficult and expensive to do, and will slow or stop nanotech products from being produced. Meanwhile, older dirtier technologies that are grandfathered in continue to be used.

So the assumption that enforcement of the demands in the press release would be necessarily good for the environment is flawed. I think I know what’s going on: the groups would prefer that these rules apply to *all* new products, and in fact all *old* products as well. But they know that getting that to happen all at once is impossible, so they are aiming at this new field and trying to get the rules implemented for nanotech first.

It’s an understandable strategy, and I think the groups mean well. Our ultimate goal of clean, safe products is the same. But I worry that this strategy may backfire for the environment. (This is without even considering what it would do to medical applications, such as the extremely promising cancer treatments now in human trials.)

There is important work to do in terms of figuring out how to regulate nanomaterials. But I don’t think this is the way to go.

Increasing amounts of solid, useful research is being done to address the concerns these groups are raising. Let’s work a lot harder in those areas and get the data we need to make sensible, targeted, science-based regulations. —Christine

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