Beyond Toxicology: Nanotechnology, Ethics, and Known Unknowns (Part II)

Part II of our conversation with Cyrus Mody, Ph.D., about nanotechnology and society. Part I is here. Part III is here.

For all installments of this Authors-meet-Bloggers series, see our archive.

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TWF: What are the real potential problems with nanotechnology?

CCMM: I like the idea of a problem that is both real and potential - it's a good shorthand for all of the ambiguities surrounding nano. Well, the issue that gets discussed all the time (on and on and on) is toxicological and environmental risks from nanoparticles. This has become a policy obsession the last couple years because nano is seen as prone in some way to the same worries as genetically-modified organisms. That is, for some reason policymakers and scientists think that "the public" became terrified of toxicological risks from GMOs and thereby "derailed" that technology; and that because nanoparticles have some similarities to modified genes (invisible, easily ingested, overhyped) the public - unless properly mollified - could become terrified and derail all of nanotech.

Policymakers are fueled in this belief by some (previously GMO-opposing) NGOs which have pretty insistently put the toxicological issue into the public eye. Consider, for instance, a public letter to the FDA from a coalition of NGOs last year requesting regulation of new nanoparticle-containing sunscreens. Some of these NGOs--I'm thinking particularly of the ETC Group--have a pretty subtle strategy here. That is, their opposition to nanotech, as with biotech, is based on a whole complex of issues. Those include North-South relations, industry-labor relations, transparency in government, etc. But they see their biotech case as only having gotten traction when they focused on the toxicological and environmental from GMOs - and therefore they've cut out the middleman and gone directly to those issues with nanotech. You could call this the North-Americans-get-mad-when-biotech-might-kill- butterflies-but-not-when-it-drives-Indian-farmers-to-suicide strategy.

So are there "real potential" toxicological and environmental risks from nanoparticles? Are nanoparticles the "new asbestos"? Will their small size allow them to trick your body's natural defenses and wreak havoc on your lungs, liver and brains?

TWF: Okay, those are good questions.

CCMM: Me, I'm not so worried - but then, there are plenty of health issues that don't worry me that probably should. A lot of scientists and, of course, people from the NanoBusiness Alliance and other pro-nano groups will say that the problem with nanoparticles is that they don't stay "nano" very long - that they tend to clump up into larger aggregates that couldn't pose any special toxicological problems. Personally, that seems plausible enough that I'm not going to worry much about playing tennis with a nano-coated ball or, better yet, getting electricity from a nano-enabled solar cell.

On the other hand (you knew that was coming, right?) - some of these nanoparticles (e.g. buckyballs) have the potential to stick around in our bodies or environment for years and years and years; other nanoparticles (e.g. quantum dots) contain really nasty elements like cadmium and are intended to be used in patients' bodies and then, presumably, pissed into the environment. So a little caution is certainly in order.

TWF: Has the focus on toxicology had any effect on how we understand or structure nano research?

CCMM: It has, yes. One salutary effect of the policy discussion on toxicology is that it has convinced some scientists (such as Vicki Colvin at Rice) to do research in this area that they might not have done.

TWF: And some of the nano-engineering folks here at U.Va. are also looking at such questions, so I see it even here.

CCMM: Unfortunately, some nanotoxicology has a defensive "let's keep the public happy" cast to it. I say, why be defensive? Embrace it! Knowledge about how nanoparticles are taken up toxicologically and environmentally isn't dangerous knowledge and it isn't pedantic knowledge - it's useful knowledge. We know appallingly little about how the chemicals that are organisms and their environments interact - so it seems self-evident that nanotoxicology is an area where new discoveries are to be made and even where new commercial successes can be found (if you think you see [esteemed Program Manager for Environmental History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation's] Jody Roberts' lips moving when I say that you might be right).

TWF: But here's more to it than toxicology, that's where you're headed?

CCMM: Here you asked this great question about real potential problems and I was hoping to just dispense with the toxicology stuff before moving on to the "real" real issues - but instead I've had to give you this whole treatise. Yes, people on all sides really are obsessed with toxicology right now, even though there are all kinds of other problems that are begging to be addressed. Even within toxicology, people only seem concerned about risks to consumers - the exposures of workers in semiconductor fabs are pretty much ignored. What I don't get is that this all seems incredibly counterproductive for everyone.

TWF: You mean the issues of poverty, health, corporate practice and goals, and military ends, those also should be in the conversation?

CCMM: Yes. But also, for critics of nano, concentrating on the toxicology just means the larger issues are ignored and, if some toxicological study comes along "proving" that nanoparticles are actually really great for you, then they've lost their one and only talking point.

For proponents of nano, concentrating on toxicology is an outcome of this weird obsession with GMOs. But of course toxicological risk was only one of many factors in the GMO controversy; and, in fact, even though proponents of GMOs went out and did studies "proving" that GMOs give you a nice healthy tan and make you live to be 400, they still ran into widespread opposition in Europe and Asia. Why? Because they didn't do anything about all the globalization issues that were driving the controversy.

Similarly, you can do all the toxicological studies you want on nanoparticles, but significant portions of the public simply aren't going to believe those studies if they think you have an agenda that includes (take your pick): impoverishing the Third World; corporatizing the university and privatizing the government; creating a "high-tech" healthcare system in which a rich few are given immortality and the rest of us get two aspirins and a band-aid; increasing the reach of the surveillance society; creating super-soldiers and robot warriors that allow the US to fight wars without losing American lives; sustaining preppy consumerism; etc. etc. So, granted that I think there may be risks from nanoparticles, and I think nanotoxicological studies are the bees' knees - but I definitely think we should start talking much more seriously about these other issues.

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Part III is here: wherein we do more of the nanotech-biotech compare/contrast thing and Mody's expertise extends to the Korean peninsula.

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