- It is one of the signature attributes of mankind that as we’ve used our intelligence to bull our way to dominance of the planet and the biosphere, that we’ve repeatedly underestimated the effects of our actions on the world around us.
- Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring was, perhaps, our first major wakeup call in this regard. Today, the world’s soil, streams and oceans swarm with chemicals of all sorts that have no analogues in the natural world and are, in many cases, having unexpected and damaging effects on the planet’s biological forms – including us.
- Reviewing Kurt Vonnecgut’s 1963 book Cat’s Cradle in which in introduced us to the hypothetical Ice-Nine is instructive at this point as we embark on releasing larger and larger numbers of nanotechnlogical materials into the natural environment and, once agin, assuming that all will be alright. An amazing assumption that we seem to make over and over again so that caution will not get in the way of profits.
WASHINGTON (AFP)—Nanotechnologies pose real threats to health and the environment and need prompt testing and oversight, but government and industry are moving slowly on the issue, scientists and environmentalists said.
Speaking after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took its first step to regulate a nanomaterial–near atomic-sized particles of silver being used as pesticide in products from shoes to a washing machine–experts told AFP that nanotechnology is already producing materials that can harm the environment and human health.
“There are some very serious concerns about potential health consequences,” said Patrice Simms of the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
“We know next to nothing about their potential health effects,” said Simms.
Nanotechnology is the creation and use of materials barely larger than atomic in scale, measuring usually between one and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, and a human hair is roughly 80,000 nanometers in width.
At that size–small enough to pass through cell membranes in the body–many materials can take on physical and chemical properties not seen in their larger forms, giving them uses never imagined before.
A Washington-based group, The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, has catalogued 356 products already using nanotechnology, including “breathable” bedsheets, lighter, stiffer golf clubs, skin care creams, computer chips and antibacterial socks.
The technology also promises more substantial “miracle” uses, from health applications like cancer treatments, to drinking water filtration systems for poor countries, to longer-life batteries.
But materials at that size may also pose dangers when they are inhaled, ingested, absorbed through the skin, or spread through nature by wind and water, scientists warn.
“Something different happens when you begin to work at a very small scale,” said Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor at the Project on Emerging Technologies.
“We know that a lot of materials like asbestos and particles affect the health because of their shapes and sizes as well as their chemistry.
“It’s reasonable to assume that some of these new materials are going to do the same thing,” noting that there are a number of new nanomaterials in filament form, like asbestos which causes lung disease.
The problem is that both industry and the government have assumed the existing regulatory framework for chemicals and other materials is adequate, Simms pointed out.