Multinational Monitor (pgs. 16-19)  [Printer-friendly version]
September 1, 2004


By Peter Montague*

Nanotechnology -- or nanotech, for short -- is a new approach to
industrial production, based on the manipulation of things so small
that they are invisible to the naked eye and even to most microscopes.

Nanotech is named for the nanometer, a unit of measure, a billionth of
a meter, one one-thousandth of a micrometer. The Oxford English
Dictionary defines nanotechnology as "the branch of technology that
deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers,
especially the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules."
Nanotech deals in the realm where a typical grain of sand is huge (a
million nanometers in diameter). A human hair is 200,000 nanometers
thick. A red blood cell spans 10,000 nanometers. A virus measures 100
nanometers across, and the smallest atom (hydrogen) spans 0.1

In the realm below 50 nanometers, the normal laws of physics no longer
apply, quantum physics kicks in and materials take on surprising new
properties. Something that was red may now be green; metals may become
translucent and thus invisible; something that could not conduct
electricity may now pass a current; nonmagnetic materials may become
magnetized; insoluble substances may dissolve. Knowing the properties
of a substance in bulk tells you nothing about its properties at the
nano scale, so all nano materials' characteristics -- including
hazardous traits -- must be learned anew by direct experiment.

Nanotechnologists foresee a second industrial revolution sweeping the
world during our lifetimes as individual atoms are assembled together
into thousands of useful new products. Few deny that new products may
entail new hazards, but most nanotechnologists say existing
regulations are adequate for controlling any hazards that may arise.
In the United States, nanotech is not now subject to any special
regulations and nano products need not even be labeled. Furthermore,
no one has developed a consistent nomenclature for nano materials, so
rigorous discussion of nanotech among regulators and policymakers is
not yet possible. Without consistent nomenclature, standardized safety
testing lies in the future.

No one denies that nanotech will produce real benefits, but, based on
the history of nuclear power, biotechnology and the chemical industry,
skeptics are calling for a precautionary approach. The resulting clash
of philosophies -- "Better safe than sorry" versus "Nothing ventured,
nothing gained" or even in some cases "Damn the torpedoes, full speed
ahead!" -- may offer a major test of the Precautionary Principle as a
new way of managing innovation.


The pressure for rapid development of nanotech is enormous. The
surprising properties of materials at the nano scale have opened up a
new universe of industrial applications and entrepreneurial dreams.
Largely unnoticed, hundreds of products containing nano-sized
particles have already reached the market -- metal surfaces and paints
so slick they clean themselves when it rains; organic light-emitting
diodes for computer screens, digital cameras and cell phones; sub-
miniature data storage devices (aiming to hold the Library of Congress
in a computer the size of a sugar cube); specialty lubricants; long-
mileage vehicle tires; nano-reinforced plastics for stronger
automobile fenders; light-weight military armor; anti-reflective and
scratch-resistant sun glasses; super-slippery ski wax; powerful tennis
rackets and long-lasting tennis balls; inkjet photographic paper
intended to hold an image for 100 years; high-contrast MRI scanners
for medical diagnosis; efficient drug and vaccine delivery systems;
vitamins in a spray; invisible sunscreen ointments containing nano
particles of titanium or zinc; anti-wrinkle cosmetic creams; and so

And this is just the beginning. Nanotech wasn't possible until the
invention in the 1980s and early 1990s of ways to arrange individual
atoms under software control. Nano particles, nanotubes and carbon
nano crystals called Bucky Balls (after Buckminster Fuller) are now
being manufactured in ton quantities for industrial use. Currently
technologists are working feverishly to coax nature's most successful
nano factory, the living cell, to grow useful new nano assemblies. It
is no exaggeration to say that the field of nanotech is gripped by
something approaching a gold rush mentality. Worldwide, governments
are spending an estimated $3 billion per year on nanotech research,
and the private sector is thought to be spending at least that much.
The U.S. government alone will spend at least $3.7 billion on nano R&D
during the next four years. The global market for nano products is
expected to reach $1 trillion in 10 years or less. Any day of the week
you can check in at and catch a glimpse of the
gold rush in action.

But for some prominent proponents of nanotech, this is about more than
money -- it is about reinventing the entire world, including humans,
as they now exist. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation,
nanotechnology is the foundation stone of NBIC -- a revolutionary
convergence of nanotech, biotech (manipulation of genes), info tech
(computers), and cogno tech (brain function). In a report sponsored by
the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce, the
technologists and politicians who are promoting this revolution say it
is "essential to the future of humanity" because it holds the promise
of "world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level
of compassion and accomplishment." They say it may be "a watershed in
history to rank with the invention of agriculture and the Industrial
Revolution." The ultimate aim of this revolution has been an explicit
human goal for at least 400 years -- the "conquest of nature" and the
enhancement of human capabilities.

Whatever else it may offer, the nanotech revolution entails a radical
new approach to industrial production with the potential to change
every existing industry, plus create new ones. Typical manufacturing
today -- even construction of the tiniest computer circuit -- relies
on "top-down" techniques, machining or etching products out of blocks
of raw material. For example, a common technique for making a
transistor begins with a chunk of silicon, which is etched to remove
unwanted material, leaving behind a sculpted circuit. This "top-down"
method of construction creates the desired product plus waste

In contrast, nanotech makes possible "bottom-up" construction in which
atoms are arranged under software control -- or in ideal cases they
will self-assemble, just as living cells self-assemble -- into the
desired configuration with nothing left over, no waste. Instead of
cutting trees into lumber to make a table, why not just "grow" a
table? Thus nanotech seems to offer the possibility of waste-free
manufacturing and therefore a cleaner environment. Furthermore,
nanotech may help remediate past pollution. U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) is funding research on releasing nano
particles into the environment to detoxify mountains of toxic waste
remaining from the 20th century's experiment with petroleum-based


Nevertheless, without denying plausible benefits, critics want
nanotech's potential problems brought into the open:

** Unless nanotechnology is shared generously, it may create a "nano
divide" similar to the "digital divide" that exists now between those
with ready access to computers and those without.

** Humans given enhanced mental or physical capabilities may gain
great advantage over normal people. On the other hand, some people may
be coerced to accept dubious or unwanted enhancements.

** Inequalities within and between nations may be exacerbated if
individuals and corporations gain monopoly control of nanotech by
patenting the building blocks of the universe -- a precedent set in
1964 when Glenn T. Seaborg was issued a patent on an element he
discovered and named Americium.

In the longer term, some leading technologists like Ray Kurzweil,
inventor of the first reading machine for the blind, and Bill Joy, one
of the founders of Sun Microsystems, fear that nanotech will give
individuals -- inadvertently or intentionally -- destructive potential
greater than the power of atomic weapons. As Joy wrote in 2000, "I
think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further
perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well
beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the
nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme

Others, such as the insurance industry, have more mundane concerns
about nanotech -- chiefly, the potential health and environmental
hazards of tiny particles. In May of 2004, Swiss Re, the world's
second-largest reinsurance firm, issued a report calling for the
Precautionary Principle to guide nanotech development. Swiss Re
itemized a host of potential problems that it says need to be resolved
before nanotech products are fully deployed, including these:

** One of the new properties of nano-sized particles is their extreme
mobility. They have "almost unrestricted access to the human body,"
Swiss Re points out, because they can enter the blood stream through
the lungs and possibly through the skin, and seem to enter the brain
directly via olfactory nerves. Once in the blood stream, nano
particles can "move practically unhindered through the entire body,"
unlike larger particles that are trapped and removed by various
protective mechanisms.

** If they become airborne, nano particles can float for very long
periods because -- unlike larger particles -- they do not readily
settle onto surfaces. In water, nano particles spread unhindered and
pass through most available filters. So, for example, current drinking
water filters will not effectively remove nano particles. Even in
soil, nano particles may move in unexpected ways, perhaps penetrating
the roots of plants and thus entering the food chains of humans and

** One of the most useful features of nano particles is their huge
surface area. The smaller the particle, the larger its surface in
relation to its mass. A gram of nano particles has a surface area of a
thousand square meters. Their large surfaces give nano particles some
of their most desirable characteristics. For example, drug-coated nano
particles may one day transport pharmaceuticals directly to specific
sites within the human body. Unfortunately, their large surface also
means that nano particles may collect and transport pollutants.

Furthermore, their large surface means nano particles are highly
reactive in a chemical sense. As Swiss Re noted, "As size decreases
and reactivity increases, harmful effects may be intensified, and
normally harmless substances may assume hazardous characteristics."
Nano particles may harm living tissue, such as lungs, in at least two
ways -- through normal effects of chemical reactivity, or by damaging
phagocytes, which are scavenger cells that normally remove foreign
substances. Phagocytes can become "overloaded" by nano particles and
cease functioning. Worse, overloaded phagocytes retreat into deeper
layers and so become unavailable to protect against foreign invaders.
Successive particles are then able to do their full reactive damage,
and other invaders, such as bacteria, may penetrate unhindered. The
surface reactivity of nano particles gives rise to "free radicals,"
which are atoms containing an "unsatisfactory" number of electrons
(either too few or too many for stability). Free radicals swap
electrons with nearby atoms, creating further instabilities and
setting off a cascade of effects. Free radicals give rise to
inflammation and tissue damage, and may initiate serious harm, such as
growth of tumors. On the other hand, some free radicals are
beneficial, destroying invaders. So the role of nano particles in
producing free radicals remains to be clarified.

** Nano particles would normally tend to clump together, forming
larger, less dangerous particles -- but nanotechnologists take pains
to prevent clumping by adding special coatings. As a result, nano
particles in many commercial products, sprays and powders remain
reactive and highly mobile.

** Whether nano particles can pass through the skin into the blood
stream is the subject of intense debate. Different experiments have
yielded conflicting results, presumably because test protocols have
not been standardized. Some believe that nano particles may slip
between the layers of outer skin and penetrate through to the blood
below. Others believe that hair follicles offer a direct route for
nano particles to penetrate from skin to blood. No one knows for sure.
Despite this knowledge gap, sun screens, skin lotions and baby
products containing nano particles are already on the market. Clearly
this is a problem for insurance firms providing liability coverage.
Swiss Re says, "Considering the wide variety of products already on
the market, the need for a solution is urgent."

** Ingested nano particles can be absorbed through "Peyer's plaques,"
part of the immune system lining the intestines. From there, nano
particles can enter the blood stream, be transported throughout the
body, "and behave in ways that may be detrimental to the organism,"
Swiss Re notes. While in the blood stream, nano particles have been
observed entering the blood cells themselves.

** Once in the body, nano particles can enter the heart, bone marrow,
ovaries, muscles, brain, liver, spleen and lymph nodes. During
pregnancy, nano particles would likely cross the placenta and enter
the fetus. The specific effects in any given organ would depend upon
the surface chemistry of particular particles, which in turn would be
determined by their size and surface coating. "It is likely that in
the course of its entire evolution, humankind has never been exposed
to such a wide variety of substances that can penetrate the human body
apparently unhindered," Swiss Re says.

** The brain is one of the best-protected of all human organs. A
guardian "blood-brain barrier" prevents most substances in the blood
from entering the brain (alcohol and caffeine being two well-known
exceptions). However, nano particles have repeatedly been shown to
pass into the brain, where their effects are unknown. Will they
accumulate and, if so, to what effect?

** Nano particles may disrupt the immune system, cause allergic
reactions, interfere with essential signals sent between neighboring
cells, or disrupt exchanges between enzymes, Swiss Re says. Some of
these characteristics may be harnessed for benefit -- for example, in
experiments a carbon nano crystal has been able to disrupt one of the
processes that allows the AIDS virus to multiply.

** Nano particles in disposable products will eventually enter the
environment. In the environment, nano particles represent an entirely
new class of pollutants with which scientists (and nature) have no
experience. Swiss Re speculates that, "Via the water cycle, nano
particles could spread rapidly all over the globe, possibly also
promoting the transport of pollutants." Swiss Re asks, "What would
happen if certain nanoparticles did exert a harmful influence on the
environment? Would it be possible to withdraw them from circulation?
Would there be any way of removing nanoparticles from the water,
earth, or air?"

** Turning to workplace hazards, Swiss Re asks whether nano particles
will become the next asbestos. To protect workers, effective face
masks are "not a very realistic prospect at present, since the
requisite design would render normal breathing impossible." New
designs may be possible but remain unproven.


Swiss Re notes that, in the past, the drive toward rapid technological
innovation has "prevented the introduction of the Precautionary
Principle in relation to new technologies for more than 20 years." But
now, "in view of the dangers to society that could arise out of the
establishment of nanotechnology, and given the uncertainty currently
prevailing in scientific circles, the Precautionary Principle should
be applied whatever the difficulties," Swiss Re asserts. "The
Precautionary Principle demands the proactive introduction of
protective measures in the face of possible risks, which science at
present -- in the absence of knowledge -- can neither confirm nor

What would precaution look like in a rapidly developing field like
nanotech? The British Royal Society and the Royal Academy of
Engineering issued a nanotech report in July 2004 recommending a
series of precautionary actions, with the following chain of

** "The evidence we have reviewed suggests that some manufactured
nanoparticles and nanotubes are likely to be more toxic per unit mass
than particles of the same chemicals at larger size and will therefore
present a greater hazard."

** "There is virtually no evidence available to allow the potential
environmental impacts of nanoparticles and nanotubes to be evaluated."

** Therefore, "the release of nanoparticles to the environment [should
be] minimized until these uncertainties are reduced."

** And, "until there is evidence to the contrary, factories and
research laboratories should treat manufactured nanoparticles and
nanotubes as if they were hazardous and seek to reduce them as far as
possible from waste streams."

These recommendations reverse the traditional approach to industrial
materials, which have historically been assumed benign until shown

The Royal Society puts the burden of producing information about
safety on industry, not on the public: "A wide range of uses for
nanotubes and nanoparticles is envisaged that will fix them within
products.... We believe that the onus should be on industry to assess
... releases [of nano particles from products] throughout a product's
lifetime (including at the end-of-life) and to make that information
available to the regulator." From such a recommendation, it is a very
short step to the European Union's precautionary proposal for
industrial chemicals, called REACH (Registration, Evaluation and
Authorization of Chemicals), which is often summarized as, "No data,
no market."

The Royal Society recommended that the use of zinc oxide nano
particles and iron oxide nano particles in cosmetics should "await a
safety assessment" -- in other words a moratorium on these products is
recommended. Likewise, "the release of free manufactured nanoparticles
into the environment for [pollution] remediation (which has been
piloted in the USA) should be prohibited until there is sufficient
information to allow the potential risks to be evaluated as well as
the benefits."

The Precautionary Principle is sometimes called the foresight
principle. Importantly, the Royal Society's report fully embraces
foresight for nanotechnology (and all other new technologies): "Our
study has identified important issues that need to be addressed with
some urgency" and so it is "essential" for government to "establish a
group that brings together representatives of a wide range of
stakeholders to look at new and emerging technologies and identify at
the earliest possible stage areas where potential health, safety,
environmental, social, ethical and regulatory issues may arise and
advise about how these might be addressed." The group must provide "an
early warning of areas where regulation may be inadequate for specific
applications of these technologies." And, finally, "The work of this
group should be made public so that all stakeholders can be encouraged
to engage with the emerging issues."

Thus nanotech is sparking not only a new industrial revolution but
demands for a reversal of traditional approaches to managing
innovation and a turn toward precautionary action. Whether the
momentum gathering behind the precautionary approach can redirect the
charge behind nanotech -- a confluence of government and technophile
advocates in alliance with an emerging industrial lobby -- remains


* Peter Montague is director of the New Brunswick-New Jersey-based
Environmental Research Foundation and editor of Rachel's Environment &
Health News.