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Nanotechnology and the Developing World: The Regulatory Gap
Brandon Keim, 16 Aug 06

unesconanotech.jpg It's interesting how any variation on the words "straight to the brain" go, well, straight to the brain. So reports of this study caught many eyes last week:

To find out if the tiniest airborne particles pose a health risk, University of Rochester Medical Center scientists have shown that when rats breathe in nano-sized materials, the particles quickly follow an efficient path from the nose to several brain regions.

Nano-sized materials -- also called ultrafine particles and nanoparticles -- are 1-100 nanometers in diameter. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter; a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. [...]

In the study, the researchers saw changes in gene expression that could signal inflammation and a cellular stress response in the brain, but they do not yet know if a buildup of nanoparticles causes brain damage.

The nanoparticles tested came from manganese oxide, a compound found in welding fumes. The rats inhaled the particles at a levels equivalent to those breathed by welders. And while the researchers don't know exactly what the nanoparticle buildup could beyond reaching the rats' brains, welders do have unusually high rates of Parkinson's disease.

So what does this study mean, beyond being worrisome for welders? It's certainly not reason to pull the funding plug on any existing or anticipated nanotechnologies, but it does add to a fast-growing body of literature on the potentially damaging effects of some nanoparticles on human and environmental health.

Worldchanging has already noted nanotechnology's many possible benefits to the world's poor and underprivileged, involving everything from energy storage and drug manufacture to pollution cleanup and crop monitoring. And while emerging technologies are always in danger of being shaped by -- and eventually furthering -- old inequalities, it's at least possible that nano is aleapfrog technology that will be produced by entities sensitive to local needs. If that's true, the trick will be to get cleaner water and cheaper drugs without introducing the nanotech equivalents of organophosphate pesticides and acid rain, or being stalled, a la GM crops, by public fears -- justified and unjustified -- of harm.

How to do that? Information sharing is a big part of it. Worldchanging has linked before to Rice University's excellent Nano Risk and Benefit Database, which gathers a wealth of nanotech health studies. But even more important is sensible policymaking and government regulation. Done right, oversight crubs recklessness and malevolence, minimizes risk and builds public trust. However, there's a serious danger of the developing world lagging behind not in research and development, but in good nanotech governance. In short, nano might be a leapfrog technology -- but in parts of the world that lack strong regulations on things like pollution and medical testing, will it be accompanied by leapfrog oversight?

A recent UNESCO report entitled, "The Ethics and Politics of Nanotechnology points out thaat existing E.U. and U.S. regulatory structures will provide a starting point for nanotech assessment, while their governments are already discussing how nanotech could require different modes of safety testing and approval.

Not, of course, that either the United States or European Union is likely to get nanoregulation right, at least immediately. The science is still only partly understood, and it's possible that nanoparticles -- to say nothing of more complex, future nanotechs -- will require methods of evaluation that don't yet exist. Industries, especially in the U.S., often resist oversight. And, ultimately, policy is never perfect. But at least the countries at the forefront of nanotechnology development are thinking about regulation; the rest of the world is, generally speaking, just beginning.

What would a world of uneven nanotech oversight look like? It's impossible to predict, but not hard to imagine: just think of the pollution in many developing world megacities, the toxic chemicals banned in the U.S. and E.U. but still used elsewhere, the outsourcing of risky drug trials. There's no reason to think nanotechnology couldn't have an equally dark side.

How, then, to make sure that the whole world has strong nanotech oversight and regulation? The UNESCO report isn't very clear, and there's no easy answer. John Daly, a technology and development consultant quoted in the SciDev article, wrote in an email that "a key element in getting the regulatory structure right is training the gatekeepers" -- nanotech researchers and analysts -- "early, working through them to educate decision makers and the public, and listening to the experts." Daly added that, in order for international organizations to play a role in establishing standards, they also need to recruit their own gatekeepers.

International organizations, the UNESCO report says, will help establish standards of production, engineering and testing, and Daly added that such organizations need to recruit their own gatekeepers. To some extent, the 'early adopter' nations described in the report will also provide models and expertise -- but, as with any technology, oversight needs to reflect local values and circumstances, and can't be imported whole-cloth from abroad. Neither should anyone place absolute faith in the wisdom of experts or gatekeepers. As public awareness has grown of the inseparability of science, society and culture, we've come to understand that policymaking requires many voices -- something even UNESCO acknowledges:

It is safe to say that, as our world comes to depend more and more on science and technology, and as public awareness of the dangers and possibilities continues to increase, the involvement of all manner of participants will move further ‘upstream’ – into the heart of scientific work itself. The overt regulation and social direction of basic scientific research no longer seems to be taboo for many nations – and the case of nanotechnology may represent one of the first where scientists themselves are no longer capable of autonomously directing scientific research due to the growth of external pressures, not only commercial, but from civil society and State actors as well. The outcome of such new interaction is far from clear.

Despite this ambivalence, the report concludes on a much more positive note. The final sentence reads, "Although nanotechnology is new and exciting, the ethical and political issues it raises are not radically different from the ones we face already – but it may provide a chance to address them with more success than ever before." And that, it seems, is the correct attitude. We have a chance to get regulation right. And if nanotechnology lives up to even a fraction of what its supporters and opponents predict, a lot of lives may depend on it.

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Comments

What a fascinating article!

The real problem is that not much is being done to protect the people from this bad nanojunk.

I live in a suburb of Los Angeles, Sun Valley. We have all of LA's dirty stuff here....86 chromium sites, 94 junk yards and auto recyclers, 22 (some closed) dumps, two hazard waste sites, seven asphalt sites, nine concrete, sand and gravel sites (all working), 12 sites where they can dump food waste, including rotten meat, and.....a POWER PLANT!

My husband and I and a few friends formed a group (East Valley Coalition)to try to fight the pollution and expansion of these sites. We have quite a few members, however, Waste Management and Browning Ferris are very wealthy companies. Our main dump is now a mountain, literally,and they want to go up 14 more stories in height!

In the meantime, keep up the good work. I'll be following along on your website, and hoping my brains don't start oozing out of my ears.

Thanks for the article, Lee


Posted by: Lee Piro on 17 Aug 06

I think the main problem is not yet the gap between developing and developed countries, but with regard to the nanotech policy itself. A "gap" still currently exist in EU and US Law as governments are using chemical legislations to cover nanotechnology.

Using chemical legislation to cover nanotech may not be sufficent as nano-particles does not behave the same way as they are in its chunk-size, so a sui generis legislation may be required. However, a specific legislation cannot be materialized without sufficient research on the environmental and health impact, and much of these research are still not available to public.

I think whats important is (1) knowledge sharing on the impacts of nanotech and (2) creation of an international "model-legislation" in order to be adopted at national jurisdiction. This way, a gap can be reduced.


Posted by: mova al afghani on 18 Aug 06



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