Nanotechnology: opportunity or threat?

June 13, 2003

Brussels, 12 Jun 2003

Innovation is running ahead of regulation, claimed UK MEP Caroline Lucas at the first ever international seminar on the societal impacts of nanotechnology, held at the European Parliament on 11 June.

Nanotechnology is a new manufacturing technology able to make products smaller and stronger. The particles used in nanotechnology research or manufacturing are invisible to the human eye, one nanometre being one billionth of a mitre. A human hair is 80,000 nanometres wide.

While participants recognised the benefits that the nanotechnology revolution could bring, most had concerns. This apprehension was not restricted to one field, but covered human health, environmental impacts, effects on international trade and developing countries, and the possible proliferation in armaments. The main concern expressed by those present however, was that we just do not know what the impacts of nanotechnology will be. It is this lack of knowledge that led some participants to call for a moratorium on certain aspects of nanotechnology use and research.

'I am not against new technologies, but want to be sure of their impact,' said Dr Lucas, who claimed that 'the minimum that we need now is a moratorium on products applied to the skin,' a proposal supported by several other speakers.

Although most people do not realise it, we are already surrounded by products developed using nanotechnology. Face creams and sun tan lotions are two examples, and according to Dr Lucas, there is evidence that such creams, which are able to pass through the skin, are potentially mutagenic and cancerous.

These health concerns were echoed by Vyvyan Howard, a toxicologist from the University of Liverpool in the UK. Nanoparticles can pass into the body by three means, he explained: through inhalation and ingestion, and transdermally.

'Breathing in very small particles has toxic effects, and it doesn't seem to matter what they're made of,' said Dr Howard. The important thing is size, he said, pointing to concerns about particles between 65 and 200 nanometres in size - the toxicity increases as the size of the particle decreases.

'Another worry is where the particles get to within the body,' said Dr Howard. We know from pharmaceutical companies that putting a drug on the back of a nanoparticle can increase the delivery of the drug to the brain. 'If it [the nanoparticle] can get to the brain, I see no reason why it wouldn't get to the foetus,' said Dr Howard. He called for more research on such implications and called on scientists to work together: 'Groups of scientists are working independently. They don't seem to be talking, and I think they must.'

One way of increasing such collaboration is through the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme, where nanotechnology features as one of the thematic priorities and has accordingly been allocated a budget of 1,300 million euro for the years 2003 to 2006. Head of Unit for nanotechnology within the Commission, Renzo Tomellini explained that the Commission's aim in funding such research is to create new economic opportunities and improve living conditions for Europe's citizens.

Mr Tomellini recognised concerns about the implications of nanotechnology, and stressed that if a danger is perceived, it needs to be investigated.

Jürgen Altmann, from the University of Dortmund, drew attention to the possible impact that nanotechnology could have on military operations. Research is already being conducted by the military, and has been since as early as the 1980s. There has been a recent increase in such activity, particularly in the US, said Dr Altmann.

Researchers in the US are currently working on a battle suit that would protect soldiers from radiation and also act as a compress when a soldier is injured, said Dr Altmann. Other innovations could include the facilitation of surveillance, bombs the size of a pen that could flatten a whole city and, most worryingly for Dr Altmann, the manipulation of the human body to make soldiers more stress-tolerant, to repair injuries more effectively and to speed up reactions. Dr Altmann is also concerned that once such technology has been used by the military, the transfer to civilian life will be a natural step. He called for a moratorium on non medically-driven implants.

Dr Altmann also called for a slowing down by the US, which is at the forefront of such research, saying: 'The US is way ahead and so won't lose anything with a slow deceleration and it could buy time for an international agreement on limits [to such technology].'

The need for deceleration and investigation was also highlighted by Pat Mooney, Executive Director of the action group on erosion, technology and concentration (etc). 'Do policy makers know this technology is coming?' asked Mr Mooney. 'Most have no idea, and it's not only coming, it's here,' he said. He claimed that governments are currently running around five years behind time in terms of assessing the potential impacts.

'As much as health and environmental concerns must be a priority, there is a desperate need to look at the effects on and control of the economy,' said Mr Mooney, highlighting his main concern. Nanotechnology will mean that the raw materials that we currently consider to be essential will change, and that this will have a dramatic effect on developing countries, many of which rely on the export of raw materials.

The effect on developing countries was also highlighted by Vandana Shiva from the Indian Research Foundation on Science and Technology. She criticised the way in which some countries are being told that they must become nano-adapted, or remain underdeveloped. Dr Vandana also criticised the way in which nanotechnology is being used: 'The way in which nanotechnologies are being presented is a betrayal of the science on which they are based. At a time when science allows us to see the world in a deeper way, the quantums are brushed aside by the uses of the science,' she claimed.

Mr Mooney also expressed concerns about the impact on intellectual property, as it is conceivable that a single patent may have dominance over many industrial sectors as it could cover the fundamentals of all matters. 'This avoids most of the debates which have taken place on patenting life because this goes below the level of life. This concerns the ownership of nature,' said Mr Mooney.

Mr Mooney also warned that 'the coalition between industry and government will get worse. It will protect the interests of what they say is society, but what they mean is industry.'

Mr Mooney also pointed to the different ways in which researchers are handling nanoparticles as justification for slowing down and taking stock of nanotechnology. While scientists in South Africa handle nanoparticles as if they were dealing with the AIDS virus, other researchers, including some in Europe, wear only a 'Japanese subway mask' as protection. 'This is like wearing a volleyball net to keep out mosquitoes,' said Mr Mooney.

Chief scientist with Greenpeace in the UK, Doug Parr drew comparisons between this new controversy and the recent debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Policy makers' consideration of GMOs was originally very narrow, claimed Dr Parr. An overall policy lesson should be that policy must not be composed by small groups of experts and bureaucrats, he claimed. He called on the EU to act as a technology facilitator with a user or civil society forum.

The need for further research has already been recognised by the UK government, which requested a study on the potential benefits and problems on 11 June.

Although many possible dangers were highlighted at the Parliament conference, including the fear of autonomous self-replicating nanorobots, a number of possible benefits were also acknowledged. Products such as self-cleaning trousers and crack-resistant paint are already on the market, and future applications could allow the removal of the smallest contaminants, including greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Summing up the conference, Dr Lucas recommended that policy makers ensure they are asking the right questions, and stressed that the 'most immediate priority is to prevent those who have the most to gain - big business - from beating the regulation race.' She claimed that this is unlikely to happen in the EU without a huge amount of pressure, and called on the Commission to mainstream safety concerns.

For further information on the nanotechnology activities at EU level, please visit:

For further information on the etc group, please visit:

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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