BY DR. TONY MYRES, OTTAWA
Nanotech is shaping up to be a major, fast-moving regulatory challenge that will have an impact not only on manufacturers and developers of products but on those who regulate professions and occupations that will use these nano-enhanced products.
Ever since the discovery of atoms scientists have always wanted to manipulate them. Nanotechnology takes that ability to a new plane using techniques that manipulate substances at the atomic and molecular level to make structures in the nanometer (nm) range (a billionth of a metre or 1/80,000 the width of a human hair).
Working at this scale allows scientists to “tune” material properties and make them behave in different ways to normal, large scale solids. For example, carbon in pencils is soft and malleable but at the nano scale can be as hard as steel.
Such properties are being exploited in many different ways. Forbes 500 lists the top ten nano products of 2005 which include golf clubs, wound dressings, building materials, joint/muscle pain cream, and dental adhesive. Other products include paints, cosmetics, lubricants.
Nanosensors have been developed that can “sniff out” heavy metal chemical contaminants in water at extremely low concentrations (parts per trillion), an application that could find important usage in public safety and security, as well as environmental monitoring.
Nanotech cuts across every business and industry, and its potential impact has been likened to a new industrial revolution – taking place in a much shorter time frame. The National Science Foundation predicts a market of $1 trillion somewhere between 2010 and 2015.
Nanotech generates deep fears about potential adverse effects on health and the environment. Some groups have called for a moratorium on its further development.
Some future scenarios involving military use are indeed frightening. Others, like self-replicating machines, are in the realm of science fiction with “grey goo” and “green goo” scenarios.
Medical applications of nanotech have the potential to revolutionize health care. But some critics are concerned these advances will be used primarily for wealthy markets, increasing the gaps between wealthy and poor countries.
Others fear that nanotech in combination with biotechnology could alter the structure, function and capabilities of human bodies and brains.
The Royal Society (UK) recently reviewed the subject and concluded that while many negative scenarios are unrealistic, there are genuine concerns that need to be addressed by regulation.
In view of uncertainties about how these substances might behave in the environment and in the human body, future developments should proceed with caution as health and environmental impacts are assessed. How and in what way these products should be regulated is currently a subject of much discussion worldwide. Nanotech spans such a wide and diverse range of products that it is unlikely that a single regulatory body can be responsible for the field as a whole. One thing seems clear to me. We will need to do a better job of regulating nanotech than we did when regulating chemicals such as CFCs and PCBs. When these apparently benign but useful chemicals first came into use our regulators did not anticipate the environmental and health problems that only became apparent many years later.