Saying No to Nano?

In the early 1990s, eager proponents began heralding nanotechnology as the second coming of the Industrial Revolution. Nanotechnology is generally defined as those systems or processes that provide goods and services that are obtained from matter at nanometer level, that is, from sizes in the range of one billionth of a meter. As a result of its extremely small size, this new technology allows the engineering of matter by processes at the atomic level.

A series of discoveries fueled the enthusiasm for nanomaterials. In 1991, Sumio Iijima discovered found a new form of carbon -- the nanotube. Then Robert F. Curl Jr., Sir Harold W. Kroto, and Richard E. Smalley discovered another nanoscale carbon form -- known as C60 or the fullerene -- and were awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This breakthrough started an avalanche of research into C60 and other nanoscale materials.

Advocates of this new technology assert that present and future applications include semicondutors, biology, medicine, textiles, chemistry, information technology, pollution control, and energy conservation. Already numerous nanoproducts have been created and placed in the marketplace. For example, Batelle has licensed the SAMMS? (Self-Assembled Monolayers on Mesoporous Supports), which was developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, to Steward Environmental Solutions LLC. The nanotechnology can be tailored to remove selectively specific metal contaminants, such as mercury, from water and waste streams without creating hazardous waste or by-products.

Recently, however, concerns have begun to emerge about the potential dark side of this brave new buckyball world. In the aftermath of the DDT and asbestos debacles, we want to be sure we fully understand any possible negative implications that this new technology may have for human health and the environment. Given that nanotechnology is probably here to stay, the U.S. Congress, the scientific community, and various environmental groups are now calling for more in-depth risk research, stricter regulations, and greater corporate responsibility.

In their book Nanotechnology: Environmental Implications and Solutions (Wiley-Interscience 2005), authors Louis Theodore and Robert G. Kunz focus on three key environmental questions: (1.) What are the potential environmental concerns associated with this new technology?; (2.) Can industries and society expect hazardous materials to be released into the environment during either the manufacture or use of nanoproducts?; and (3.) Could nanoapplications lead to environmental degradation, particularly from bioaccumulation of nanoproducts in living tissue?

One emerging issue concerns how the federal government will regulate nanotechnologies. Discussions about controlling the risks of nanomaterials have generally focused on the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the federal statute enacted in 1976. The way that TSCA works is if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determines that a new chemical might pose a risk to human health or the environment, the agency is allowed under TSCA to place restrictions on that chemical. The restriction applies to the manufacturer of the products. The problem is that a firm that is using the nanoproduct may not know anything about the restriction. This especially would be true if the firm were far down the supply chain from the manufacturer. It still remains to be seen which regulations the federal government will use to address air emissions, water effluent, and wastes from nanomaterials.

Many feel that it's important for the federal government to resolve this issue as soon as possible. According to a recent report published by the Lux Research Inc. uncertainty about federal regulation is inhibiting commercial development of nanotechnology.

On a positive note, it's encouraging that the federal government is starting to take some steps related to nanotechnology. For example, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (www.nano.gov) is a federal research and development program established to coordinate the multiagency efforts in nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. Twenty-three federal agencies participate in the initiative. In addition, EPA has launched a Web site that provides information on research regarding the environmental uses for nanotechnology, including water treatment processes.

Another promising development is the new Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which is a project supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts. This project will include a series of meetings and a symposium that focus on how to apply the principles of green chemistry and green engineering to nanotechnology. According to Dr. Barbara Karn who is leading this project, the effort will look at government policies that offer incentives for developing low-risk practices.

We still have much to learn about the potential risks to human health and the environment posed by nanotechnology and its byproducts. So important is this issue that the ultimate success or failure of nanotechnology may possibly depend on how fully these issues are addressed. Only when these concerns are resolved can we in good conscience fully say yes to nano.

This editorial originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 17, No. 7

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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