Nanotechnology is one of the ‘next big things’ in our future. People have elevated it to a level of near worship as the way to solve, and in some cases revolutionize a number of areas of human life. It certainly has that potential, but nanotechnology will take us into uncharted areas and we must be cognizant of both benefits and potential liabilities. .
Basically it is an application of existing science and manufacturing taken down to the atomic level with the use of nanoparticles. Nanoparticles are usually defined as clusters of atoms and molecules, used in an ever increasing range of invisible products and microscopic manufacturing methods, that are measured in nanometers or billionths of a meter. Promoters of nanotechnology predict how it might transform everything from energy production to health care, using microscopic particles to cure diseases in the body without surgery. Currently however, it is being utilized in more mundane applications such as stain-resistant clothing.
What has concerned me about this new field ever since I first learned of it was what the side effects or unintended consequences of this new technology might be. The environmental movement taught us about the interrelatedness of all things on our wonderful planet. We now look at things from both a global and holistic perspective. It is this perspective that brings pause when thinking about nanotechnology. What might we inadvertently unleash while searching for miracle cures at the microscopic level?
DDT was first utilized during World War II, and later became the first widely used pesticide to protect agricultural crops. Post war it was hailed as a miracle as it greatly increased per acre yield in many areas of farming. Our eyes were on the benefits and not on the unintended consequences. In one of the greatest environmental books of all time, “The Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, published in 1962, the unintended consequences became clear: DDT caused cancer in humans and had many deleterious effects on a variety of animals. As a result it was ultimately banned. The key lesson learned was that chemical compounds put out into the ecosystem cannot be controlled, contained or managed. A success over here can create a disaster over there.
So this brings me to a wonderful article in the New York Times about Nabil Al-Hadithy. Mr. Al-Hadithy is the hazardous waste manager of Berkeley, that unique city in California that since the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s has been at the front lines of social and cultural change and regulation. Nanotechnology became a concern for Mr. Al-Hadithy when a federal research lab in town filed an environmental impact statement three years ago for building “a molecular foundry” to make nanoparticles. He sent the lab a long list of questions that started with the question “What the heck is a nanoparticle?” Since the answer was so complex and basically unmeasured, Al-Hadithy, fulfilling his responsibility to protect the citizens of Berkeley from the perils of hazardous waste, came up with his own answer and submitted a regulation to the city council.
Last month the city council adopted his regulation, making Berkeley the first governmental body in the U.S., and most likely the world, to explicitly regulate enterprises that make or use nanoparticles. Berkeley citizens have long been skeptical about commercial enterprises’ ability to anticipate disaster and have therefore embraced their governmental agencies to stand tall in this regard. The new regulation requires businesses to identify all materials they produce or use with a dimension of 100 nanometers or less. In addition they must fully disclose what they know about the possible toxicity of the particles and their procedures for monitoring, processing and disposing of them.
To be clear, I am very supportive and excited about the potential of nanotechnology. My only concern has been the real possibility of unintended consequences in this field. So, with a big grin and a sense of gratitude I tip my hat to Mr. Al-Hadithy and the city of Berkeley California to again focus our attention on an important issue long before it becomes a mainstream issue everywhere else.