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
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