Nanotech at risk from silence on safety

Start talking, people

Nanotechnology is in danger of being pigeonholed as a risky, hazardous and controversial business, a new study has found, because companies in the emerging field are not tackling the very real health and safety issues involved.

In a report published this week, research and advisory firm Lux Research noted that the science of the very small involves both real and perceived dangers to the environment, and to health and safety in general. But nanotech startups are avoiding the subject because of a fear that "they may be held legally liable in the future for any admissions of risk made now," Reuters reports.

While this might seem like a very sensible approach to take (given the increasingly litigious world in which we live) it opens the industry to other dangers. Lux warns that unless the industry itself is more robust in dealing with questions over health and safety, it risks being hamstrung by public opposition, particularly in the event of some kind of mishap.

"Consumer awareness of nanotech is so low that no hardened opinions exist, so there's room for fact-based debate," the report says. "However, stakeholders in the commercialization of nanotechnology have massively undercommunicated on [environmental, health and safety] issues to date and risk losing the battle for mindshare by default."

It warns that there is currently very little hard data on the subject, and says that the debate is largely characterised by "a chorus of voices and strongly held opinions". It also argues that activists have begun protesting against the technology by disrupting international nanotech conferences, using similar tactics to those who oppose genetically modified foods or stem cell research.

The science of nanotechnology has the potential to underpin a new multi-billion dollar industry, so any potential threats to its commercialisation should certainly be addressed.

But commercial considerations cannot be the only ones. There has been research indicating that buckyballs, for example, are toxic to fish. More recently, US researchers have shown that the carbon 60 molecule can restrict the growth of soil bacteria.

The technology has huge positive potential too: researchers in Italy think nanotubes could play a vital role in future treatments of spinal cord injury, for example.

It is the breadth of possible applications for the science that makes it so interesting. It is also what makes it so vulnerable, since in its various forms it could end up offending everyone from eco-warriors through to privacy advocates. Joining the debate properly, and sooner rather than later, is something the commercial side of the industry would be unlikely to regret. ®

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