Think twice before labeling nanotechnology products

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The ETC Group, recently mentioned here for its PR skills, has announced a contest to design a Nano-Hazard symbol for nanotechnology:

Standard setting bodies around the world are now scrambling to agree on nomenclature that can describe nanoparticles and nanomaterials. A common, internationally-recognized symbol warning of the presence of engineered nanomaterials is equally overdue.

So apparently they want this symbol on all products using engineered nanomaterials, an extraordinarily broad category. There are at least two ways in which this is a bad idea.

First, many such nanotech products will turn out not to be hazards at all. A similar case exists here in California: state law requires the posting of a warning sign about chemical hazards. This sign has now been posted in so many places (all grocery stores, increasing numbers of apartment buildings) that consumers disregard it entirely. It’s become meaningless. This kind of overuse reduces the communication value of hazard signs in general.

Second, we don’t need another symbol. As ETC points out on their page, there is already a well-established symbol for toxic hazards. Consumers shouldn’t have to learn a new symbol: either something is toxic or it’s not.

We need to take a precautionary approach to the strong version of the precautionary principle itself. It could do more harm than good. —Christine

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