Monday, July 9, 2007


It was a nano-scale event – so small it was hard to detect. But the action taken recently by the city of Berkeley California could have vast repercussions for nanotechnology and it’s incredible potential. For all of nanotechnology’s promise, there also may be serious risks, and Berkeley wants to know just what kind of genie we’re letting out of the bottle.

Berkeley has passed what may be the first law putting restrictions on nanotechnology. Municipal code 15.12.04 directs that “All facilities that manufacture or use manufactured nanoparticles shall submit a separate written disclosure of the current toxicology of the materials reported, to the extent known, and how the facility will safely handle, monitor, contain, dispose, track inventory, prevent releases and mitigate such materials.” Not a red light, to be sure, but for the first time a government is turning the go-go nanotech green light to cautious yellow. It would not be surprising to see other governments, at all levels, around the world, following suit. Cambridge Massachusetts, the first community in the U.S. to put restrictions on recombinant DNA work, is considering a similar ordinance.

It will be interesting to see how companies in Berkeley comply. Firms have to report on toxic potential of the nano materials they make or use, but the fact is that we know practically nothing about the possible human and environmental health impacts of these incredibly small materials. In fact, we don’t even have the tools to figure out what these materials do.

That’s because these particles are as small as just a few atoms, which is why they have such potential, and potential for harm. You’d have to place 80,000 nanometer-sized particles next to each other to get from one side of a human hair to the other. Stack 100,000 of them on top of each other and you get the thickness of a piece of paper.

At those sizes, matter behaves in new ways. Silver becomes a powerful antibacterial. Silver nano particles are already being used in refrigerators and plastic bags to keep food fresh. When exposed to ultraviolet light, nano sized crystals called quantum dots light up as much as 1,000 times brighter than most medical dyes. They’re already being used to identify cancer cells in the human body and in commercial lighting to reduce the need for energy. Carbon nanotubes have unique properties that make them unbelievably strong, and much more efficient than copper at conducting electricity.

But at those sizes, nano particles are too small to capture in filters. Their properties are too novel for toxicologists to even figure out what harmful effects these materials might have. The science of developing nano materials has far outpaced the science of understanding their risks.

But that hasn’t stopped nano products from showing up in the marketplace daily. From car windscreens to stain-proof clothing to cosmetics to medical devices to tennis rackets to, yes, the iPod Nano, hundreds of products are on the market that use materials at sizes hard to imagine. More are in development, with promise that ranges from better medicines to safer food to huge reductions in our use of energy.

With the almost unimaginable potential that comes from the ability to manipulate matter at the atomic level, it’s no surprise that governments have been pouring money into research and development for years, particularly the U.S., the E.U., and Japan. But very little of that money - just 4% in the U.S. - is going toward research on the risks these materials might pose. The money being spent to figure out what these particles can do for us is vastly greater than what is being spent figuring out what nanotech can do to us.

And that’s dangerous. One newsmaking instance of nanotechnology causing real harm and the media will undoubtedly make the public aware that, when it comes to risk, governments are clearly putting the nano cart before the horse. And that would surely deal all of nanotechnology a blow that could set it back years. It would dramatically delay the application of this technology and, while reducing possible risks, deny us the remarkable benefits nanotech offers.

Berkeley has asked for more than can be reasonably produced. The EU’s Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General Commission says “…existing toxicological and ecotoxicological methods may not be sufficient to address all of the issues arising with nanoparticles.” In short, these materials are so small, their behaviors so novel, that we don’t even know what to test, or how, to see if they are safe. But Berkeley has asked the right questions. The governments of the U.S., the E.U., and Japan, should be spending far more on answering them.

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