September 29, 2006

A REPORT ON THE NANOTECHNOLOGY DISCUSSION at the MIT Emerging Tech Conference:

The question put before the panel of five esteemed scientists speaking here is, essentially, “How much should we be worrying about the health consequences of the new nanosubstances we are rushing to develop.” And this question isn’t just academic. As Dr. Vicki Colvin, a Chemist from Rice University points out, the carbon nanomaterial c60 is already used in over-the-counter cosmetics, and is an important component in many fuel cells.

But what do such materials do to our cells? The answer is that no one is quite sure. Studies are showing that the basic physical properties of certain substances can change when you get to the nanoscale. The questions still outweigh the answers. Are we even dealing with new materials? Should they be reclassified? After all is engineered nano c60 a new material, or is it just plain old soot? It turns out that how you manufacture your materials—and how you treat and dispose of them, can dramatically change their effect on the human body and the environment.

As I mentioned, the presentation shows that at this point, there is a lot of research to be done, but it is also encouraging to see these concerns raised early in the life cycle of nanotechnology. After all, as one of the speakers here pointed out, it took years after mass production and deployment of technologies such as DDT and chlorofluorocarbons before we realized their detrimental side effects—side effects that ended up overshadowing the scientific benefits that those technologies provided. One of the panelists, Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, sees this as a unique time when we can build in toxicity research and oversight into the development process. And when you think about it, doing the responsible research early on will ensure the long-term viability of the entire nanotech field. All it takes is one health scare to turn the term “nano” from a new-economy buzz word into a technological pariah.

That’s right. I have some further thoughts on the topic here.