Academic journal article Health Law Review

Nanotechnology - a Lot of Hype over Almost Nothing?

Academic journal article Health Law Review

Nanotechnology - a Lot of Hype over Almost Nothing?

Article excerpt

Nanotechnology involves the design, characterization, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at nanometer scale (one billionth of a meter). The convergence of numerous scientific fields at the nano-scale is an exciting and rapidly progressing field of study. The applications of nanotechnology are infinite and have the potential to positively impact the lives of many, although negative effects are certain to arise and cannot be ignored.

Some argue that nanotechnology does not raise any novel ethical, economic, environmental, legal or social issues. Whether this is true or not, nanotechnology is certain to exacerbate and complicate these same issues. (1) Despite the exciting innovation that nanotechnology may bring, it is in danger of being derailed by negative public sentiment. The media and public action groups have published alarmist headlines and tales of caution for the promising technology. The ETC Group in particular has gone so far as to recommend a full-scale moratorium on any commercial production of new nanomaterials until the possible risks and dangers are fully researched and examined. (2) Thus, it is important for the ethical, environmental, economic, legal, and social issues surrounding nanotechnology to be examined and addressed appropriately (NE3LS issues). (3) Numerous reports, and papers prepared by government bodies, public action groups, NGOs, and academics from around the world have been released that express concern about nanotechnology. The most salient matters from these works have been grouped into different categories for further consideration and are as follows: (4)

Human health risks and human enhancement -- There is a lack of evidence and research on the associated risks of manufactured nanomaterials and nanotubes. Nanotechnology products have been released on the market after relatively short research and development phases. Standards urgently need to be examined and developed for workplace exposure to nanoparticles, and toxicology research is extremely important to determine the effects of nanoparticles and nanotubes once they enter the body. Although not unique to nanotechnology, the issue of human enhancement requires specific consideration because of the promise that nanotechnology will improve human performance both physically and cognitively.

Nanoparticles/nanomaterials and the environment -- As commercialization increases nanoparticles will become ubiquitous in the environment. Assessment of environmental risks must be carried out as soon as possible along with studies to determine the environmental impact of nanomaterials already released in the environment. Current regulatory schemes for new substances should be reviewed to determine whether they are adequate in addressing the unique properties of nanomaterials. The use of an independent body to do environmental assessments has also been advocated.

Regulatory issues -- Because nanotechnology will impact almost every segment of the economy, regulation will be highly complex. This complexity is exacerbated by the fact that human and environmental hazards and risks are presently uncertain. Although mal-defined, the use of the precautionary principle has been advanced. In response to the ETC Group's call for a moratorium, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering "do not think that there is either the body of scientific evidence to warrant this intervention or a consensus that this is necessary on a precautionary basis." (5) Taking steps to minimize exposure while uncertainties are studied has been suggested instead.

Privacy and civil liberties -- Enhancements in imaging and surveillance devices increase the ability to collect, store and analyze large amounts of data. While cameras and recording devices become smaller and also gain larger storage capacity, it will become easier and less expensive for people to be monitored. It is important that policy-makers consider the advent of these nano-enabled devices to ensure that adequate protection and safeguards are put in place. …

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