Emerging Tech

Scientists Fear Nanotech Threat to Environment, Health

The potential health and environmental consequences of nanotechnology are a source of greater concern to scientists than to the public at large, according to a new study published Sunday in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

The research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Arizona State University, included a national telephone survey of American households along with a sampling of 363 leading U.S. nanotechnology scientists and engineers. It found that experts with the most insight into nanotech also have more concerns as to the health and environmental problems that might be associated with the technology.

“Scientists aren’t saying there are problems,” said Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication and journalism who was lead author on the study. “They’re saying, ‘we don’t know. The research hasn’t been done.'”

Big Potential

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of matter on the smallest scale — on the level of molecules and atoms.

Just last month, the 2007 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to two scientists who discovered the nanotechnology that has made today’s tiny hard disk drives possible. Albert Fert of France and Peter Grnberg of Germany won the award for their independent discoveries of giant magnetoresistance (GMR), which has revolutionized the way data is read on hard disk drives by storing information in the form of microscopically small areas magnetized in different directions.

Other applications range from new antimicrobial materials and tiny probes to sample individual cells in human patients to vastly more powerful computers and lasers. Nanotechnology is already part of consumer products including golf clubs, tennis rackets and antimicrobial food storage containers.

Health Fears First

Scientists surveyed in the study were generally optimistic about the potential benefits of nanotechnology, but they expressed significantly more concern about pollution and new health problems related to the technology than members of the public did.

One example of an environmental danger could be the effect of tiny nano particles on natural environments if lab filters don’t catch them when liquids are being disposed, Scheufele told TechNewsWorld.

A health concern includes the effects of nano particles whose toxicity is unknown on lab workers who get exposed to them, he added.

More than 30 percent of scientists expressed concern that human health may be at risk from the technology, while just 20 percent of the public held such fears. Twenty percent of the scientists responding indicated a concern that new forms of nanotechnology pollution may emerge, while only 15 percent of the public thought that might be a problem.

The American public, by contrast, is more worried about a potential loss of privacy from tiny new surveillance devices and the loss of more U.S. jobs, according to the research.

Information Disconnect

The bottom line, the researchers say, is that there is a disconnect between the perceptions of those who understand the technology and those of the public in general. Nanotech’s emergence only recently on the nation’s policy agenda and the media’s lack of attention to the technology are two factors behind the disconnect, the researchers said.

“The conversation that should be taking place hasn’t happened yet,” Scheufele said.

“What needs to happen is really a dialog between scientists and the public and also politics that involves both the scientific and the nonscientific aspects,” he explained. “That means science has to participate in a way that’s accessible to all audiences.”

Different groups in society are looking for different answers about technology, Scheufele added. “There isn’t one single public. It’s important for us to do careful research about how best to engage each of these groups.”

Cultural Differences

Different cultures have varying levels of sensitivity to the introduction of unnatural elements into the natural world, noted Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies.

“In Europe, for example, genetically modified foods are seen as unacceptable,” Kay told TechNewsWorld. “In our highly commercial culture, on the other hand, we tend to shoot first and ask questions afterwards. Sometimes we’re sorry, but most of the time it works out.”

All it would take for a public-relations disaster, however, is for one of the many new technologies to get out of control, Kay added.

“Then the public will say, ‘Why didn’t you warn us?'” he noted. “I think scientists are aware of that.”

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