Environmentalists and other green groups are extremely concerned that nanotechnology may unleash a slew of health, safety and environmental disasters. Scientists on the other hand are optimistic that nanotechnology holds the key to a range of new frontiers from cancer cures, to super fast computing and the clean up of environmental pollutants. This article presents the argument of how nanotechnology is set to harm the world.
Nanotechnology is the study of particles and materials smaller than a billionth of a metre in size. At such small sizes the materials develop unique properties that are not seen in normal or macro sized particles.
The potential threat to humans by nanotechnology and nanoparticles is largely unknown due to the relative infancy of the science itself. These threats are therefore often highly speculative ‘what if’ scenarios based around the ways nanoparticles can interact with human tissue.
Nanoparticles can enter the body by being inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. The worry that some people have is that, due to the extremely small size of nanoparticles, they can readily pass through cell walls into the interior of living cells or quickly enter the bloodstream and be transported to the brain.
Laboratory studies have shown that nanoparticles known as buckyballs can damage the damage fish brain cells. In extending this research to see if human tissue could also suffer damage, liver and skin cells were exposed to buckytubes. The result was that half the cells were killed. By coating the buckyballs the toxicity was reduced to a level believed to be safe for humans.
Other studies found that nanotubes introduced to the lungs of rats caused 15% of them to suffocate. Some people cite this as reason to be wary of nanotubes. Others say that the natural tendency of nanotubes to clump together results in large, harmless particles.
Some companies using nanoparticles commercially are of the view that more work is required to properly understand the toxicity of carbon nanotube powders. These companies apply the same procedures towards handling carbon nanotube powders as they would if handling asbestos fibres.
Grey Goo, Terrorists and The End of The World
A pioneer in nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler, coined the phrase the "grey goo problem" to refer to a nanotech accident that results in nanomachines that "could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days." This has been picked up by Michael Crichton's novel Prey to give a doomsday scenario caused by nanotechnology gone astray.
Self replicating machines like this do not currently exist and problems with energy and thermodynamic means they are unlikely to ever exist.
Other apocalyptic scenarios include terrorists or the military using nanomachines as weapons of mass destruction.
Asbestos and CJD– Nothing Compared To Nanoparticles
Another fear is that damage caused by nanoparticles may not become apparent for years or even decades before unleashing untold problems. For decades asbestos was considered a safe material and the devastating effects of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) lie hidden for many years.
Opponents of nanotechnology argue that the dangers is this new technology may remain hidden for years, then once realised, nanoparticles will be so widespread throughout consumer goods that the effects will be catastrophic. Insurance companies are aware of the potential for future claims and are at the forefront of pushing for strict safety testing and regulations.
Comparing Nanotechnology With GMOs
Groups that led a strong backlash against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now have nanotechnology in their sights. They are calling for a moratorium on all usage of nanoparticles either in the lab or commercially. Two problems exist with this approach, without using nanoparticles in research we will never discover if they are safe or harmful. Secondly, unlike GMOs, nanoparticles can’t self replicate or cross breed with natural particles in order to populate in ‘the wild’.
The only thing that is clear about the dangers and promises of nanotechnology is that we need to continue research to conclusively understand any possible threats to people, animals or the environment. Or if the positives offered by nanotechnology outweigh any negatives to create an acceptable risk level. As an example, if nanoparticles were proved to cause lung cancer should they be banned if those same nanoparticles could be altered slightly in order to provide a cancer cure.