Still Unprotected: Nanotechnology and Public Safety

At the 2013 Nanotechnology Conference, which took place last week in National Harbor, just outside of Washington, D.C. at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, there were presentations on new synthetic metals, atomic and molecular configurations that could soak up carbon dioxide and reduce greenhouse gases, and clothing materials that were stain resistant. There were venture capitalists that roamed the vast exhibit halls, looking for fresh investments. There were law firms that advertised expertise in protecting and licensing intellectual property. There were workshops on how best to share research and data in the scientific community.

But something was off: here was a tribute to the imminent age of nanotechnology and there was nothing about consumer law. There were no events, workshops or talks on the potentially harmful effects nanotechnologies could have on human health and the environment. There were no booths devoted to the public interest.

“There’s nobody who’s particularly concerned about [the dangers of nanotechnology],” says Lewis Laska, a lawyer and business professor at Tennessee State University. “I couldn’t even find people who had speculated, in print at least, on the hazards. They talk around it. But there’s no talking to it.” It’s difficult to do so, he says, because “we don’t really have cases.”

Out of the tens of thousands of articles written about nanotechnology, which is a $2 billion industry that is rapidly growing, 2 percent deal with health issues according to Laska’s latest book, Nanotorts: Nanotechnology for Consumer Lawyers. And most of them, he says, deal not with human health but with the effects certain particles had on rats, fish and mice. 

Many scientists deflect the issue by saying that nanoparticles are already abundant. Forrest fires, volcanoes, and even the ocean spew nanoparticles into the air. The problem, Laska argues, is that these examples are natural. The new technology isn’t. It’s artificially created.

Nanoparticles are often described as being small versions of bigger atoms or molecules. They have the same properties, many say, to their bigger brothers, except that they’ve been specially tailored to be able to carry out exactly the task we want it to carry it out, whether it be targeting and killing cancer cells or geo-engineering the world we want to live in.

It’s almost impossible to confront the “nano-hype,” Laska says. There are the prospects of bullet proof vests made out of liquid, leaves that can collect and store carbon to offset pollution, and electronics that could store almost an infinite amount of memory through microwiring. It’s a chance to take the building blocks of the universe and customize them exactly how you want.

But this has been the case with all other technologies, Laska points out. Humans have always built up expectations of new technologies without paying attention to the side effects.

The steamboat, which was universally praised and unquestioned, killed thousands of people before the government started to regulate and inspect the ships. The year that Wilhelm C. Rontgen discovered x-rays in 1895, forty-nine books and more than a thousand articles were published about the finding. None had to do with safety. And it was decades before the effects of tobacco, which relieved stress and anxiety for some many people, were finally studied and found to be life threatening.   

In 2009 China reported the first deaths that resulted from an alleged exposure to nanoparticles. Seven women who worked in a paint factory using nanoparticles had suffered permanent lung damage and two of them died as a result.

But there was little attention given to the incident. It didn’t prompt any significant investigation into the particles used and whether similar particles could pose the same threat to human beings.

According to a study from 2009, the United States will need to spend at least $1.2 billion and between 34-53 years doing research before nanoparticles can be properly understood.

Laska doubts that the money and time needed to understand the side effects of nanotechnology will be spent.

“Nanotechnology will cause history to repeat itself,” he writes reluctantly in his book. “The science today recalls the era of the exploding steamboat. American exuberance for nanotechnology without an understanding of its risks recalls a time when science was deficient and lives were lost.”

It is our hubris that allows us to make the same mistakes over and over, says Laska. Instead of respecting the rules of how the universe operates, he says, we tinker with it in the hopes that it will conform to our fantasy. We are almost always wrong in our rosy pictures of new technologies.

“Man,” Laska says, “cannot make anything perfect.”