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Between hype and doom: keeping an eye on nanotech

Jack Stilgoe
20 April 2006

A new bathroom sealant lost some of its advertised "magic" in late March – and sent a wave of trepidation through the brave new world of nanotechnology – when six people were hospitalised with respiratory disorders after using the product within days of its release onto the German market. In the next four weeks, more than eighty other people in Germany reported coughing fits or breathing difficulties following use of the glass-and-ceramic sealant Magic Nano in its new aerosol-spray form. It had been on sale for only three days before being recalled.

At first sight, this looks like just another minor health scare, and an investigation is underway. But the appearance of the word "nano" has caused nervousness in an industry that many contend will be the Next Big Thing.

Jack Stilgoe is a researcher at the think-tank Demos and co-author of The Public Value of Science (2005, available free from Demos).

Also on science, public policy and democracy in openDemocracy:

James Wilsdon, "Small talk: new ways of democratising science and technology" (September 2005)

Ehsan Masood, "Bush's 'war on science' through the microscope" (January 2006)

Paul Miller & James Wilsdon, "The man who wants to live forever" (February 2006)

The burden of expectation

Nanotechnology carries heavy expectations on its tiny shoulders. Depending on who you ask, it is the next industrial revolution, the opportunity to rebuild matter from the bottom up, the next genetic-modification controversy or the next asbestos. At the nanoscale, where things are measured in nanometres (a billionth of a metre, a ten-thousandth the width of a human hair), new properties emerge that promise great things. An American report from 2000, by a committee of the National Science and Technology Council, gushed that nanotechnology is "likely to change the way almost everything – from vaccines to computers to automobile tires to objects not yet imagined – is designed and made."

But, in Britain especially, observers have learned to take such claims with a pinch of distrust. On 6 April, the London-based think-tank Demos published a report in collaboration with academics at Lancaster University entitled "Governing at the Nanoscale". When it comes to nanotechnology, the report argues, we need to learn the lessons of past technological "revolutions", such as genetically-modified (GM) foods. This means being aware of uncertainties as well as opportunities, and it means finding new ways to manage technology. Governments around the world, eager not to let the benefits of nano slip through their fingers, are starting to decide how to deal with it. But are they too late?

Products which contain, or are claimed to contain, nanotechnology, are starting to appear on supermarket shelves. We know that there are more than 200 nanotechnology products currently available to buy. The iPod – nano or otherwise – uses components that can be measured in nanometres. The L'Oréal cosmetics group is using actress Scarlett Johansson to front its new range of nanotechnology-based products, and the German chemicals giant BASF have been putting nanoparticles into sun block for several years. And yet it is hard for regulators to find out exactly what nanotechnologies are out there, let alone find ways to control them. Moreover, new regulations currently do not cover well-established nanotechnology applications such as the sun block.

There is a widespread assumption that a small particle will have much the same sorts of effects as a big one, despite the science suggesting otherwise. Such uncertainty over nanotechnology's precise impacts makes everyone twitchy – governments, companies, scientists and citizens. This explains why ears pricked up with the issue of a press release, only hours before April Fool's Day: Kleinmann GmbH, a German cleaning-products manufacturer, was recalling Magic Nano from the stores where it was being sold because of its unpredicted, negative health effects.

Speculation has begun to focus on the fine spray expelled by the product's new aerosol-propellant containers. Experts say tiny droplets of liquid penetrate deep in the lungs much easier than larger droplets produced by pump-action containers – particularly when used in confined spaces. Kleinmann says it has had no complaints about the pump-action version of Magic Nano, which has been on the market for two years.

The product-recall story was picked up and reported matter-of-factly by German newspapers. It took a week to cross the Atlantic, where the Washington Post started making the association with wider policy debate about nanotechnology.

The small community of nanotechnology bloggers and pundits have become skilled at rationalising such stories in ways that puncture both doom-mongering and hype. Most of its members doubted that Magic Nano contained anything that could be described as nanotechnology or that, if it did, the nano part was to blame for the health scare. However, as Mark Twain put it long before the internet existed, a lie can be halfway round the world "while the truth is putting on its shoes". Technosceptic campaign groups leaped on the story, calling it a "wake-up call". They used it to restate the need for a moratorium on selling nano-products, and an increase in the funding of regulatory science research.

The story has yet to make a strong appearance in the United Kingdom, where sensitivities about GM foods and "mad cow disease", or BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) loom behind opinions about new technologies and regulation. But it should be taken as a signal of things to come. The history of technology is punctuated by stories of the price we have paid for regulatory arrogance. There is still a tendency, in the words of a report from the European Environment Agency, to learn "late lessons from early warnings". Beyond BSE and thalidomide – a drug blamed for thousands of birth defects in the 1950s and 1960s – we might look back to asbestos for a cautionary tale. In 1898, a factory inspector called Lucy Deane remarked that asbestos particles "have been found to be injurious, as might have been expected". It was 100 years before the UK government banned white asbestos.

The regulation gap

It is easy for governments to ignore such early indicators of danger. Deane's observations about asbestos, and countless others that followed, were ignored because the evidence came from people who didn't fit the government definition of an expert (many were women). It is easy for regulators to fit new technologies into old regulation and hope it will suffice. With nanotechnology, as products begin appearing, companies and regulators will be asked some difficult questions. Kristen Kulinowski, from Rice University's Centre for the Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, in Houston, comments: "with new technologies, some companies speak out of both sides of their mouths. They claim that their products have exciting new benefits, but that they don't present any new risks." Claims of the wonders of nano can easily get stuck in this "novelty trap".

Regulation can either be reactive or proactive. It can either wait for reliable evidence of danger or it can seek out the uncertainties that might point to dangers further down the track. It can either be secretive, fearing a public panic, or it can be open and broad-based. Nanotechnology provides a chance to manage technology in an intelligent way, learning the lessons from history and avoiding past mistakes. This is not a problem that the men in government offices can solve behind closed doors.

The UK government has taken the first steps, by asking that companies involved in nanotechnology tell it what they're doing and contribute to a regulatory framework. But regulation still looks like it is struggling to keep up. As nanotechnology races ahead and finds its way into all sorts of applications, regulators are tripping over themselves trying to establish exactly what nano means and what effects it might have.

At the launch of the Demos report, leading nano-scientist and blogger Richard Jones criticised the lack of governmental leadership on the regulation of nanoparticles. The government had identified huge gaps in our knowledge about nano, but it had "simply failed to provide a mechanism to fill those gaps." If governments are serious about realising the value of nanotechnology, they need to ensure that regulation runs hand-in-hand alongside the Next Big Thing.

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