Expert Calls for Retooling Environmental Regulations for the Emerging Age of Nanotechnology in AllAmericanPatriots.com

March 12, 2009 - Cincinnati, Ohio

Given some of the surprises and unintended consequences that have resulted when new materials are introduced into the environment, there is a compelling argument for nimbler regulation of nanomaterials with new analytical tools, a historian of science told a March 5 seminar at AAAS.

Jody Roberts, program manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, sought to dispel some of the scarier visions that have been proposed by critics of the technology, including the possibility that runaway nanorobots might somehow turn the surface of the Earth into a gray goo.

But he also noted that there are serious issues to be addressed as the technology emerges, including the fundamental question of how to regulate something that can't be seen. The unprecedented scale of nanomaterials will require a significant retooling of the ways regulators monitor substances in the environment, Roberts said.

"We need a revolution in analytical chemistry as well as nanotechnology," he said.

Roberts spoke at the first of three seminars at AAAS on contemporary issues in science, technology and policy. The series is organized by the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Center for Contemporary History and Policy and the AAAS Archives.

In his talk—"What's So Scary About Nano?"—Roberts focused on concerns about the potential toxicity of particles that are, on average, 100 to 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Nanoparticles, which are a billionth of a meter in diameter or less, already are being used in cosmetics, automobile tires, and other products. They are being studied for their ability to cross biological membranes to enter cells, tissues and organs (including the brain) that larger particles normally cannot reach.

There remain questions about the extent to which nanomaterials may pose risks to the environment and human health. Studies have suggested, for example, that carbon nanotubes—thin, strong molecular cylinders of carbon atoms—have some of the same effects in mice as asbestos fibers, raising concern that exposure to such particles could cause similar cancers as asbestos.

To assess such questions, Roberts said, it will be important for scientists and regulators to come up with new tools for measuring the impact of nanoparticles. At the same time, he said the public could use a more sophisticated understanding of the history of nanotechnology and its likely future. The field has been the subject of competing narratives almost from the outset, he said.

On the one hand, scientists speak of understanding matter at the quantum level and creating a new industrial revolution at a scale of matter never previously imagined. The feeling is that "nano's awesome," he said. "You can do anything because we can control matter." Enterprising lab workers can manipulate atoms to spell out their names and researchers create tiny gears and rotors as the first steps to building nanomachines...

Link to AAP

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