Effect Measure

Small concerns about nanotechnology

If you are like most people you probably aren’t alarmed about the dangers of nanotechnology. In fact if you are like most people you probably don’t even know what nanotechnology is. I’ll resist the temptation to say general knowledge of the emerging technology of the very small is even smaller. Despite the fact most of us have no clue, there is a surprising amount of nano products already in the marketplace, incorporated in products from food containers to golf clubs. But there remain doubts about safety. Nanoparticles are so small they don’t act in ways we understand, either physically or biologically. Yet we let the genie out of the bottle and he isn’t likely to go back in. The question is how many of his friends will come out with him before we find a problem. Unlike other areas where the scientists usually are less worried than the public, with nanotechnology it’s the other way around:

The unknown human health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology are a bigger worry for scientists than for the public, according to a new report published today (Nov. 25) in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

The new report was based on a national telephone survey of American households and a sampling of 363 leading U.S. nanotechnology scientists and engineers. It reveals that those with the most insight into a technology with enormous potential — and that is already emerging in hundreds of products — are unsure what health and environmental problems might be posed by the technology.

“Scientists aren’t saying there are problems,” says the study’s lead author Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication and journalism. “They’re saying, ‘we don’t know. The research hasn’t been done.'” (presscue via Slashdot)

The differences between scientist and public concern aren’t huge but they are noticeable. 20% of scientists worry about nanoparticle pollution while the number in the public sample was 15%. For health, the numbers are 30% of scientists expressing concern, 20% of the public. The twl issues where public concern exceeded the concern of scientists was over privacy and jobs: the public is worried about tiny surveillance devices and loss of US jobs.

I hope they don’t voice those concerns out loud. They might get fired.


  1. #1 Kurt
    November 30, 2007

    There’s no doubt in my mind that eventually, some nanotechnology product is going to turn out to be the asbestos of the future. The problem is that there is not any foolproof way of identifying harmful agents when the harm they cause only shows up after, say, 10 years of exposure. I don’t think this is a reason not to develop nanotechnology products, though. I mean, I love Magic Eraser (just for example), it works great. But I think I’m going to hold my breath while I’m using it, just in case.

    Now, self-replicating nanotechnology may be another matter altogether…

  2. #2 Crudely Wrott
    December 1, 2007

    Heh! It’s the little things that count. At least, that’s what Ma always told me.

    Seriously, is there any research that focuses on the interaction between cells, tissue, precious bodily fluids and nanoparticles? It seems to me that such particles must exist naturally and, if that be the case, biological systems must have some means of coping. If not, then, well, how come what is alive, is alive?

    I’m not talking tiny robots with nanobrains and nanohands here. As I understand it, the present abilities of nanotech in today’s marketplace are limited to markers, tiny particles that are robust and easily identifiable. Their use is to provide a means to identify the origins or ownership of a product. Tracking commodites.

    While such pedestrian (but practical) applications seem innocuous, there is certainly room for concern. “What if these bits get into my body, or my brain?” is a valid question. But given that markers, or tell-tales, are designed specifically to not react with other substances, would they not also be stable and not interact with the environment that exists, say, in my stomach or my lungs?

    This is brand new territory and I’m just musing here. While I don’t seem to have an instinctive fear of people fiddling with matter and energy there seems to be a certain universal revulsion to the idea that someday little “guys” will course through human plumbing.

    It therefore seems prudent to introduce nanostuff into biological samples in a controlled environment and to carefully observe the results. What is being done on this front?

New comments have been disabled.