A decade ago the great worry about nanotechnology was that it could quite literally destroy the planet. As Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy warned in his essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” self-assembling nanobots could potentially spread out of our control (Mis-)programmed to replicate ad infinitum, these subsentient bots would spread across the landscape as a gray goo of devastation, consuming the earth and every unlucky creature who called it home.
Nowadays we can only wish that our planet-dooming scenarios were so far-fetched. Our existential worries revolve around the all too immediate problems of global warming and disease, and nanotechnology—incorporated into improved solar panels, wind turbines or drug delivery mechanisms—could, if anything, emerge as an important tool to fight these threats.
Yet like any new technology, nanomaterials carry with them potential both for good and for harm. The most salient worries concern not a gray goo apocalypse but rather the more prosaic and likely possibility that some of these novel materials may turn out to be hazardous to our health or the environment. Because ordinary materials display unique properties at the nanoscale, the nanometer-size bits of a seemingly benign material might turn out to be noxious. As John D. Young and Jan Martel report in “The Rise and Fall of Nanobacteria,” even naturally occurring nanoparticulates can have an deleterious effect on the human body. If natural nanoparticulates can harm us, we would be wise to carefully consider the possible actions of engineered nanomaterials. The size of nanoparticles also means that they can more readily escape into the environment and infiltrate deep into internal organs such as the lungs and liver. Adding to the concern, each nanomaterial is unique. Although researchers have conducted a number of studies on the health risks of individual materials, this scattershot approach cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the hazards—quantitative data on what materials, in what concentrations, affect the body over what timescales.
In response to this uncertainty, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a grand research strategy to study the health and environmental effects of nanomaterials, a welcome step that many have been advocating for years. We hope that the program will help build a robust database that will give policy makers and the public the facts needed to understand the possible health risks that specific nanomaterials might create. And although it would be unwise to rush careful research efforts, speed is paramount. According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, more than 1,000 consumer products containing nanomaterials are available in the U.S., a number that is quickly growing.
We also emphasize speed because of the EPA’s alarming recent history with a similar research program. In 1996 Congress directed the EPA to conduct a comprehensive screening program for endocrine disruptors in the environment. These chemicals interfere with the body’s hormonal system and can lead to abnormal development of the sex organs, infertility and cancer. Although the U.S. has banned the production of known endocrine disruptors such as PCBs and DDT, other common chemicals—most notably bisphenol A (BPA) and some pesticides—may also affect the body’s endocrine system.
Even for a government agency, the EPA’s response to the congressional directive was woefully indolent. Instead of quickly beginning to study the thousands of suspected endocrine disruptors that may exist in the nation’s drinking water, the EPA spent the next decade building a labyrinth of committees and subcommittees to evaluate what materials might be worthy of study and the methodologies that should be used to study them. By 2002—six years after the program began—the EPA got so far as to devise the selection process it planned to use to choose the first 50 to 100 chemicals that would eventually be subject to analysis. In 2007 the agency published a draft list of those chemicals. In April 2009 it finalized the list. And triumphantly, in late October, 13 years after the program began, the EPA announced that it would begin research.
The country cannot afford a repeat of this farce—and not just because of the public health concerns. With so many nanomaterials already on the market and such little public awareness of nanotechnology, one safety scare might convince consumers that all nanotechnology is dangerous. (Witness Europe’s attitude toward genetic modification for an example of how a culture can turn against an entire class of innovation.) In addition, without clear scientific and regulatory guidance, many companies are hesitant to invest in nanotechnology R&D, fearing the exposure to legal action that could result if one day a technology is deemed dangerous. Procter & Gamble, for example, is not pursuing nanotechnology because of the long-term risk of litigation.
This uncertainty is putting people’s health at risk and choking innovation. And with all the threats the planet faces, we need all the little bits of innovation we can get.