The Battle between Fear and Greed in the Nanotoxicology Debate

There is no news topic more commonly covered in nanotechnology today than concerns overs its potential environmental, healthy and safety (EHS) impact. There are at least two reasons for this, I believe, one is that bad news or failure is always more compelling to read, and to write, than good news or achievement. And the second is that environmental activists are so much more adept and capable at manipulating the PR machinery than a gaggle of physicists, biologists and chemists.

As far as the former reason, this blogger is as guilty as the next scribe, with the caveat that my ruminations on the subject have been with the aim to provide a little more balance to the issue.

It appears I am not alone. Barnaby Feder at the New York Times waded into the controversy on his â''Bitsâ'' blog and made the rather reasonable, but in todayâ''s atmosphere nearly sacrilegious, assertion that â''â'¿nanotech skeptics, perhaps taking their cue from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are going to war with the weapons theyâ''ve got. With no evidence so far that nanotech is actually damaging anyone, they are focusing on the materials most widely used in consumer products and doing their best to worry the public â''and government officials â'' about potential hazards that have yet to be thoroughly researched.â''

Uh ohâ'¿ â''no evidence that nanotech is actually damaging anyoneâ'' is not going to be taken lying down. A commenter on the â''Bitsâ'' blog cites â''evidenceâ'' from research on fish that disproves Federâ''s assertion. In his defense, I am sure that Feder reserves the term â''anyoneâ'' for those of the human species.

But aside from indefinite pronoun confusion, the idea that tests performed on fish are conclusive evidence of nanotechnologyâ''s toxicity to humans would be jumping the gun somewhat.

There are a number of reasons for this, but not the least of which is that a big problem still persists in the lack of standards and measurement. As a result, two experiments testing the toxicity of nanoparticles may appear to be identical on paper but result in completely different results: nanoparticles are toxic, or nanoparticles are safe.

But as I have argued before this debate will not be resolved by scientific inquiry, understanding and rational policies, it will come down to whether the environmentalists can incite enough fear to overcome industryâ''s drive to make a profit. In other words, fear and greed are the two battling forces, so no need to trouble yourself over â''evidenceâ''.


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