Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Nanny for Nanotech? Government and Nanotechnology Hazards

Very small things can cause us lots of trouble, from flu viruses to tiny asbestos fibers that lodge in the lungs and lead to mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. But up to now, all the very small things we had to worry about occurred naturally. In the last few years, we've learned how to make things that small artificially as well. And some people are worried that no one is paying much attention to the question of whether tiny artificial stuff could be as dangerous as the tiny natural stuff we've learned to live with—or die with.

Scientists have developed a special unit of measure for these things: the nanometer. One billion nanometers is a meter (which is a little longer than a yard, for you non-metric types). A human hair looks like the trunk of a redwood tree compared to a virus or an asbestos fiber, which can be as small as 10 nanometers in diameter. When things get that small, they start acting peculiar, because the graininess or lumpiness of matter begins to show up—the fact that it's made of atoms. This can be both very good or very bad, depending on what you're looking at. Take carbon nanotubes, for instance. These are tiny tubes that, if you could see them, would look like elegantly woven fabric, every atom in place. Atom for atom, if you pull on one of these tubes, it's much stronger than steel, and it can conduct electricity much better than copper, but only along the direction of the tube. This stuff has already made it into some commercial products, and hopes are that it will form the basis of entire new industries. Other nano-size chemicals and particles are finding their way into everything from electrical products to cosmetics. That's the good news.

The possible bad news is, no one much is looking into the question of whether these tiny engineered particles are dangerous to living organisms, and in particular, people. So far, there hasn't been a tragedy involving artificial nanotech products along the lines of the "radium girls" disaster of the 1920s. But we don't know that it won't happen, either.

In some ways, radium was the nanotech of the early 1900s. Marie and Pierre Curie, radium's discoverers, were international heroes. Women who were hired to paint glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch and clock dials with radium-bearing paint thought they were lucky to be working with such exciting stuff. Some even used it as makeup and lipstick, which must have freaked out their boyfriends when they turned off the lights.

But within a few years, these women found out their jobs were no joking matter as many of them began to fall ill with liver problems, anemia, bone fractures, and rotting jawbones. The cause, of course, was the intense doses of radiation from the radium they absorbed in their bodies. Their employers initially denied any responsibility, the U. S. government declined to get involved, and it took years of persistent work by industrial pathologists, politicians, and others sympathetic to the workers' plight to get radium recognized for the terrible occupational hazard it was.

Are we facing a similar situation in the proliferation of nanotech products for consumers? There is a technical aspect and a political aspect to the question.

The technical aspect is, nobody knows for certain. But scientific knowledge isn't free: someone has to pay for tests, investigations, reports, and the other overhead stuff that goes along with finding out things these days. We know some things about nano-scale materials and how they interact with the nano-scale machinery of living cells, but certainly not everything. One reason nanotechnology and biotechnology are so attractive to researchers and investors is the fact that we don't know all about what goes on between these two areas, and so we're trying to find out. Absolute certainty that a product is free from any hazard to humans is not something we can usually obtain at a reasonable cost. The usual product testing will often show up prompt hazards (ones that don't take years to develop), and as for the others, well, since many companies operate on a six-month product cycle, waiting fifteen years for the outcome of a longitudinal study of biohazards just doesn't make a lot of sense to them.

That brings up the political question. Partly because I'm no political scientist and like to reduce everything to vectors (at least that's what my wife says), I like to drive things to extremes in order to understand where we stand in the middle. On one extreme would be total non-regulation: anybody can make anything anywhere, and sell it to anyone, claiming anything for it, and let the buyer beware. I understand this state of affairs isn't too far from reality in parts of China nowadays. It's a pretty good environment for entrepreneurs, assuming they don't have to live downwind from a paper mill or something equally offensive. But the dangers to consumers are obvious.

The other extreme is complete and total "nanny-stateism" (hence the nanny in today's headline): no product is allowed to fall into the hands of the consumer until the manufacturer has been held guilty of its being harmful, and forced to prove himself innocent. Things are not quite this bad in some Scandinavian countries, but show signs of moving in that direction. At this extreme, companies give up on making money and spend their dwindling capital on safety studies that take years and let their competitors in less regulated regions beat them to the market. Clearly, this extreme isn't going to work very well either.

Being an engineer and not a political scientist, I tend to trust democracy to stumble around between these two extremes and find a middle road that is neither too negligent of the consumer's interests nor too stifling of the manufacturer's initiative. Nobody will be entirely happy with such a compromise, but that is how democracy works, or is supposed to work. In the past, it has taken a major tragedy, with people dying in large numbers from unusual causes, to motivate large-scale regulation of certain industries. That's too bad, from one point of view, but if the alternative is to regulate ourselves into the past and defer the use of any new nanotech products until we're absolutely, positively sure they're safe, then that's not so good either. Some studies by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars indicate that no one—meaning no government agency charged with the responsibility—is overseeing the vast new field of consumer products that use nano-size particles. At the risk of annoying any libertarian readers of my blog, I would venture the opinion that at least somebody who is not beholden to manufacturers should look into this on a regular basis. But I would also venture that they shouldn't interfere with things until they find there is some reason to believe there is trouble brewing.

Sources: The Wilson Center website at http://www.wilsoncenter.org/ describes some of the work of their emerging nanotechnology project at http://www.nanotechproject.org/. This column was inspired by a piece in the Austin American-Statesman for Apr. 1, 2007 (p. A19) by Jeff Nesmith about the Wilson Center. Reviews of Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 by Claudia Clark (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1997), which I haven't read but would like to some day, can be found at the Amazon.com entry for the book.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post!

    Do you know about the Citizens' Coalition on Nanotechnology and the Nano Cafés website?

    The website is geared towards everyone - citizens and scientists - and presents resources in plain language.
    It includes a wide variety of information sources with different points of view. The site is maintained by scientists and citizen journalists who believe that sharing different perspectives is essential to healthy public deliberation and democracy.

    It offers the latest news on societal, environmental, ethical and risk issues raised by nanotechnology, an updated list of websites, reports and articles, multimedia resources, and information on nanoproducts.