Nanotech Fear Peddlers Are Back, Insisting 'Here Be Monsters'

I was going to make this a 2011 nanotech year-in-review column, but then I got to thinking about one of the biggest threats that could face nanotech in 2012. The nanotech Luddites are back with their “precautionary principle” — a philosophy that says whatever fears environmental fringe groups concoct must surely be true because there have been no studies to contradict them. Therefore, here be monsters.


“Friends of the Earth” (quotation marks are mine, since their actions call into question whether they are, indeed, allies of my home planet) is one such group.

Just because they say they are friends of the earth, does not make it so. In fact, they have an anti-technology agenda, the same kinds of folks who ensured that “genetically modified foods” is a dirty phrase in some parts of the world, contributing further to world hunger. Many people have suffered due to lack of access to technology based on the say-so of groups with this kind of agenda. They are not environmentalists, as many in the mainstream media say. They are environmental activists. I would even take the environmental out of it. They are one-issue Luddites who take the hammer to anything that they consider “unnatural.”

They tried to bait the FDA into some kind of action back in 2006. I covered it here. Friends of the Earth told me that they are calling “for a moratorium on the release of cosmetics and personal care products that contain nanomaterials until we have regulatory oversight and comprehensive toxicological testing.”

Now, they’re back with a coalition of self-proclaimed “consumer advocacy” groups trying to get the FDA to ban nano-sized ingredients because these groups think that something sounds just icky about them.


They’re suing based on a danger for which there is no evidence, but maybe there will be, so we’d better ban it just in case

One topic that is discussed endlessly by the activists involves sunscreen with nanoparticles in them that make it go on clear. Anti-nanotech activists like to talk about “uncertainty” regarding nanoparticles in sunscreen. Well, a new study makes it a bit more certain that no harm is actually done. “Nanoparticles did not penetrate beneath the outermost layer of cells …” This undercuts one of the main objections to nanotech in consumer products. But, unfortunately, facts rarely interfere with the agendas of those who peddle fear.

In Mexico recently, nanotech researchers have been targeted and and letter-bombed by anti-nanotech hit squads who spout out the same half-baked garbage as Friends of the Earth, mixed in with the old “gray goo” scenario that no legitimate scientist actually believes in.

The National Association of Manufacturers put it best back in ’06 when the Friends of the Earth first discovered they can get some press on this nano thing. “Once again industry is forced to respond to unfounded allegations by a group with a very definite — and anti-progress — agenda. We should let nanotechnology flourish, and tell the Luddites to get out of the way.”

But, at the time, the activists got the headlines they wanted. And they will likely get a few headlines in 2012 by media outlets who want to go along for the ride for ideological reasons. There has always been a disconnect between the nanotech portrayed in the mainstream media and what is actually happening. It is usually a question of who puts out the most interesting press releases. And, unfortunately, anti-nanotech Luddites are organized and can get a few headlines going among editors who have a vague idea that nanotech has something to do with out-of-control swarms of tiny “things.”


The same problem exists even outside “environmental” circles. I’ve heard too often words similar to those used by NPR’s David Kestenbaum, as reported on Dexter Johnson’s excellent Nanoclast blog: “After billions of dollars where are the nanotech products?” Nanotech experts set the NPR reporter straight and explained to him what real nanotech is.

Of course, I am not surprised at this typical NPR ignorance. They have never covered nanotech accurately. Instead, their child-like correspondents and producers focus on overproduced garbage rather than real reporting. (You want grown-ups producing better, in-depth technology coverage without distracting bells and whistles, listen to the BBC).

There will not necessarily be one nano-eureka moment that will usher in the true Age of Nanotechnology. Instead, nanotech will slowly infiltrate existing products and processes, making them better. Computers will run faster and more efficiently, drugs will go straight to cancer tumors and not harm healthy cells, even paint will contain tiny solar cells to power devices.

At least, in the near-term future, that is what we can expect from nanotech. And it’s pretty amazing even without one single eureka moment.

As for “environmental implications,” well, we all know not to believe everything we read. Find out who’s behind the fear-mongering, what actual studies have been done and what is simply fantasy?


Nanotech, unfortunately, is such a broad term that it can encompass both our greatest hopes and our greatest fears. May your New Year be filled with hope and wonder.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified image.)


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