Nano-Innovation: Yes We Can, But Should We?
By Tim Schwab
Last week, President Obama visited Albany, New York to tout the role that academic institutions like the University of Albany’s NanoCollege play in driving “the future of our economy.”
Unique in academia, Albany’s NanoCollege is dedicated to tinkering with tiny nanoparticles to create new materials that are increasingly used in consumer products. Nanomaterials could revolutionize your kitchen, for example, by making your ketchup easier to pour and your cutlery sterile through the use of embedded nano-pesticides.
If these innovations sound more like gimmicks than miracles, it’s because they are. The promise and potential of nanotechnology is, predictably, being used by industry to gloss over the need for regulations, consumer protections and more science about the safety of these nanomaterials. It’s the same logic that brought us “better living through chemistry” – and lead paint and asbestos in our homes or dangerous agrochemicals like DDT in the environment.
Like yesteryear’s chemical blunders, nanomaterials have enormous potential to cause harm to human health, the environment and biodiversity. Materials on the nanoscale exhibit properties and behaviors that can be completely different from larger particle sizes of the same substance, and scientists do not yet really understand how these materials operate in nature or our bodies. While this field presents innovators with a whole new class of chemicals that can do unique things, it also presents society with a whole new class of potential hazards – some of which have already come to light, as researchers are linking nanoparticle exposure with potential problems like “asbestos-like pathogenicity.”
Still, folks at the White House and at the dozens of corporate “strategic partners” at Albany’s NanoCollege see nanotechnology as the next big thing. As the head of the “nanoeconomics constellation” says, “…ultimately, if you think about it, everything on this planet and in this universe is made up of atoms. And if we can control, manipulate and manage and build …from the atom up, the world is your oyster.”
That’s a big “if.” Another big “if” that the school may not be fully addressing are the consequences nanomaterials could have on human health or the environment if they should be commercialized irresponsibly. In the absence of a sound, fundamental understanding of the science surrounding nanomaterials, does it really make sense to embrace nanoproducts that are not evaluated for safety, or for that matter, labeled?
Yes we can, but should we?
Check out Food & Water Watch’s report on nanotechnology, Unseen Hazards: From Nanotechnology to Nanotoxicity.