By Peter Montague
The year 2005 began brightly enough for U.S. evangelists of nanotechnology -- the science and engineering of things so small they are measured in billionths of a meter and are invisible even under a microscope. When substances are broken into nano-sized particles, their properties change dramatically -- metals may become transparent, inert substances may suddenly become chemically reactive, and dielectrics may begin to conduct electricity. The nano world turns ordinary reality topsy turvy -- all very mysterious and marvellous, really.
For at least 10 years the U.S. has been banking on nanotechnology to fuel a new industrial revolution, pump up flagging rates of economic growth and make boatloads of money for already-wealthy investors, with perhaps some benefits trickling down to ordinary earthlings. Indeed, many people have pinned their hopes for the future of the U.S. economy on nanotech. Of course, some nano evangelists go even further. In a report sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce, evangelists who are promoting this technology say it is "essential to the future of humanity" because it holds the promise of "world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment." This is technological evangelism at its snake oil best.
Nanotech has in fact been expanding at breakneck speed. The U.S. is investing more money, securing more patents (more than 1000 per year), and publishing more scientific papers on nanotechnology than competitors in any other country. The National Science Foundation estimates that by 2015 (a short 10 years from now) nanotech will be a $1 trillion business employing perhaps 2 million workers. And that's just the beginning, they hope.
However, in March the President's Council of Advisors on Science andTechnology issued a lengthy report on nanotech that raised serious safety questions. The President's Council made the point repeatedly that nanotech is already finding its way into products (sun screen, baby lotion, wrinkle-free trousers, tennis rackets, computer hard drives, and so on) -- but there has been almost no safety research and nanotechnology is entirely unregulated. The toxicity studies now under way are "a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done," according to John H. Marburger III, science advisor to PresidentBush.
The federal government is pumping at least $1 billion per year of taxpayer funds into nano research and development (4% of it into safety studies), and the private sector worldwide is putting up another $8 billion per year. In addition, individual states are putting up an estimated $400 million per year, as they vie with each other to create the next "silicon valley" -- hoping to create jobs to replace the jobs that have been moved to China by the Wal-Martization of the economy.
In the rush to build this new industry, nanotechnology engineers have so far neglected to ask, What happens when nano products are discarded and become nanowaste? (Here we are seeing an exact replay of the nuclear industry.)
David Rejeski of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholarsthinks the "waste" question deserves an answer: "Who knows what happens when you grind this stuff up, incinerate it or it goes into a landfill? These products may be safe in the tennis racket, but all products become obsolete at some point -- if nothing else because they go out of fashion. Those teal-colored nanopants are going to be out of style next year," he said, only half-joking. "Then what?" Good question. (The nuclear industry -- 65 years into the enterprise -- still has no answer.)
By year's end, even more serious questions had arisen about nanotech. One of the most popular nano materials is a molecule composed of 60 carbon atoms, which attach themselves together in the shape of a soccer ball. They are called fullerenes, or bucky balls, after the famous inventor Buckminster Fuller. Bucky balls have a huge surface area compared to their volume, so they are highly reactive in a chemical sense -- they readily glom onto almost anything nearby. Scientists have been hoping that bucky balls could be coated with medicines and injected into sick people to deliver specific remedies to specific parts of the body. Alternatively, EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] has been hoping bucky balls could be released into the environment to detoxify some of the billions of tons of toxic wastes left over from the previous industrial revolution (which was based on nuclear and petrochemical evangelism).
Last year, nano researchers showed that bucky balls in water could migrate into the brains of fish. In December, researchers at Vanderbilt University announced that bucky balls are soluble in water and will enter cells and probably bind with DNA -- the doubly- coiled molecule that transmits life from one generation to the next. Two engineers at Vanderbilt concluded that bucky balls "bind to the spirals in DNA molecules in an aqueous environment, causing the DNA to deform, potentially interfering with its biological functions and possibly causing long-term negative side effects in people and other living organisms." Uh, oh.
After this announcement, a chorus of complaints arose, urging safety studies of nano materials, in preparation for "regulating" the industry. No one in the chorus mentioned that the U.S. has never been able to effectively regulate the nuclear or petrochemical industries-- the vast majority of chemicals in commercial use today have never been safety-tested and 1800 new compounds enter commercial channels each year almost entirely untested for effects on human health and the environment. As a practical matter, the chemical industry is unregulated, and will remain so. As for the nuclear industry, its dangerous detritus has been spread all over the planet -- radioactive junk piles of astonishing proportions, under sea, in the artic, in the northwestern and southwestern deserts of the U.S. Is there any reason to believe that the nanotech industry will be different?
Despite this, a substantial sector of the environmental movement is committed to the "regulatory approach" and they have teams of attorneys and scientists ready to spend tens of millions of dollars trying to impose largely-ineffective regulations on the nascent nano industry. It's a kind of symbiotic dance between the industry and the enviros, each helping the other pretend to be scientific and effective.
In June Environmental Defense (formerly Environmental Defense Fund,aka ED) joined with the American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers' Association, aka ACC) in making a joint proposal, "which calls for international efforts to standardize testing and risk assessment protocols for nanotechnology development, and the drafting of measures to protect human health and the environment while regulators, industry and the scientific community continue to research and develop the technology." In other words, the chemical industry (which is the nanotech industry) is begging to be regulated and is proposing the terms of regulation -- we'll deploy the technology as fast as we can and you regulators will please develop "regulations" and "risk assessments" after the fact.
I suppose a silly sweetheart deal like this allows ED to look like it's still "a player," the ACC gets to look "reasonable," nothing new is required of anyone, and an unsuspecting public gains the reassuring-- though entirely false -- impression that something worthwhile is being done to protect their health and well being.
Even if the ED-ACC proposal produces its intended result, the best we can expect is a replay of the petrochemical century -- except that nanotechnology is far more powerful than anything that every came out of a 20th-century chemical lab. The failure to regulate the chemical industry, if replayed by the nanotech industry, will definitely not be pretty.
But we must ask ourselves, why would this industry ask to be regulated?
So far, the U.S. regulatory system has been even more lenient on nanotech than it has been on petrochemicals. So far U.S. regulators have declared that a nanoparticle of titanium or carbon is no different from a bulk quantity of titanium or carbon, and so no regulation is needed. Think about that for a minute. If there really were no difference between bulk quantities of a substance and the same substance in nano-sized particles, there would be no advantages to nano particles and therefore no nanotech industry. This U.S. regulatory foolosophy is clearly aimed at letting this new industry develop as rapidly as it can, without regard for consequences. Government regulators are helping the nano industry get products to market, create jobs, and grow large before anyone notices. After the industry grows large, then effective regulation will be impossible because jobs would be jeopardized, thus pitting working people against public health specialists (who would otherwise be natural allies). This "divide and conquer" strategy worked like magic with leaded gasoline, asbestos, and the nuclear industry (among many others), so there's no reason to think it will fail with nanotech.
However, even the evangalists of nanotech recognize there's wild card in this approach: the public.
Without safety testing of nano products, the nanotech industry "is setting itself up for the same kind of consumer backlash that has haunted genetically modified foods," Science magazine observed in December. No doubt this is what's driving the ED-ACC proposal to develop "regulations" -- aiming to create the appearance that this industry is being hemmed in by "command and control regulation" (sounds strict and effective, doesn't it?) may keep the public dozing, at least for a time.
In addition to providing false but convincing reassurance to a worried public, "regulations" also serve two other purposes:
(1) When people begin to realize they've been poisoned by nanoparticles, the poisoners will say, "The government approved this, so I'm not liable." In other words, the regulatory system legalizes harm and provides industry an "out" when the stuff hits the fan. This is precisely the approach that won a $10 billion law suit for Altria Group (Philip Morris) last week in Illinois. People harmed by tobacco products said Philip Morris had misled them by selling killer- cigarettes under the safe-sounding name, "Light." Philip Morris argued that government had approved the label so the deadly consequences of being snookered by the false label were the government's fault, not the cigarette maker's. The Illinois Supreme Court bought it. So regulation -- though it may be totally ineffective at protecting the public -- can protect the poisoners very well.
(2) The second reason why the ACC might want regulation is that it gives big firms a powerful advantage over their smaller competitors. Big firms may never say so in public, but they love complicated regulations -- the more complicated the better. They can afford to hire a staff of lawers and engineers -- "compliance specialists" -- who do nothing but read the regulations and fill out the burdensome paperwork, bellyaching all the way to the bank. Small firms cannot necessarily afford to hire "complianace specialists" so they are ensnared by the rules, tripped up, and waylaid. They spend a greater proportion of their available funds complying, compared to the big firms, which reduces their ability to compete.
In sum, the fact that the regulatory system doesn't protect the public is really beside the point -- the system was designed to serve other purposes. Big industrial firms need regulations to (a) to provide the public a false sense of security and lull them to sleep; (b) shift blame onto regulators when the public objects to being poisoned; and (c) put small firms at a competitive disadvantage. The enviro partners of the big polluters play right into this industrial strategy with eyes wide shut.
Safety testing and subsequent "risk assessments" to "prove safety" provide cover for polluters so that contamination of the planet with exotic materials can proceed unimpeded. We examined how this works, in some detail, in Rachel's #831. Initially, contamination of the planet was an unintended consequence of the risk-based regulatory system, but now everyone knows how it works, so continuing to rely on this failed regulatory approach can no longer be justified as accidental or unintended. We now know exactly what we're doing. We're making short-term profits at the expense of everyone else who inhabits the planet, including our children and grandchildren. The "regulatory system" makes this game possible.
It's not hard to figure out why industrial polluters do these things-- they have no choice. They have one -- and only one -- legal option: they must return a modest profit to investors, year after year. They are not permitted by law to do anything else, so their behavior is predictable. Their task is to shove as many of their costs onto the public as they possbly can and still remain within the bounds of the law.
But the big enviro groups are set up not-for-profit, so they are not bound by any fiduciary duty to investors. Therefore they must have other motives. As I say, this nanotech business is all very mysterious and marvellous, really.
 Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge, editors, Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance (Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, June, 2002.
 Robert F. Service, "Calls Rise for More Research on Toxicology of Nanomaterials," Science Vol. 310, No. 5754 (Dec. 9, 2005), pg. 1609.
 Rick Weiss, "Nanotech is Booming Biggest in U.S., Report Says," Washington Post Mar. 29, 2005.
 States with the greatest nanotech potential are California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Maryland, New York,Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, with Colorado, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Washington state close behind, according to Small Times magazine March 12, 2003. Available at http://rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=298 .
 Keay Davidson, "The promise and perils of the nanotech revolution," San Francisco Chronicle July 26, 2004.
 "Vanderbilt U. Engineers Question Safety of Nano-Buckyballs," Dec.5, 2005. Press release from Vanderbilt University.
 Arjun Makhijani, Howard Hu, and Katherine Yih, Nuclear Wastelands;A Global Guide to Nuclear Weapons Production and Its health and Environmental Effects (Cambridge, Mas.: MIT Press, 1995). This 660-page compendium does not include information about the medical and industrial uses of radioactive substances, which have created their own universe of expensive, long-lived problems. And of course the problem of rogue nuclear weapons falling into the hands of unstable governments -- Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, and perhaps others -- poses yet another universe of dangers of incalculable proportion.
 "Industry, Environmentalists Offer Plan for Possible Nanotech Rules," Inside OSHA June 27, 2005.