Regulating nanotechnology

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 4, 2008

Matthew Nisbett’s blog, Framing Science, just posted a note about a potential ban on nanotechnology in consumer products due to health concerns. He quotes a NY Times article in which nanotech is called the asbestos of tomorrow. He writes:

The asbestos comparison immediately places nanotechnology in the mental box of uncertainty and risky health impacts. For several years, consumer advocates have used asbestos as a familiar historical example to anchor interpretations of nanotech, but now this advocacy package has been given resonance by a study appearing this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. From the NY Times article

Emphasizing a regulatory vacuum, the advocacy group released a report this week calling for nanomaterials to be banned in foods and packaging, and for mandatory labeling in cosmetics, personal-care products and cleaning agents.

I commented:

I think a ban is an alarmist move. Not all nanotechnology is bad, nor is it all good. A while back a citizen group called for a warning label on all products containing nanotechnology. You can listen to an excellent audio essay by journalist Philip Ball on my podcast SmallTalk (a short-lived series on nanotechnology from the Exploratorium).

There is also some good discussion by the folks at the Woodrow Wilson institute on that podcast about the tricky issues facing consumer products using nanotechnology. It’s a regulatory issue, and one that needs to be done carefully because of the potential health risks, but the benefits of nanotech are potentially large.

Another blogger picked up on the NY Times story and had this to say:

There’s a new study reported in Nature Nanotechnology entitled “Carbon nanotubes introduced into the abdominal cavity of mice show asbestos-like pathogenicity in a pilot study.” Or, as the title seems to have been understood by reporters at the New York Times and elsewhere, “Blah NANO blah blah blah ASBESTOS blah PATHOGEN blah blah.

Even more interestingly, he points out that the study isn’t that substantive, and the inclusion of Andrew Maynard as a co-author may have been strategic:

Substantively, there isn’t much surprising about this study. Indeed, the authors basically say “toxicologists have a paradigm for how mesothelial cells respond to long, skinny, tiny fibers – and that paradigm seems to hold true for carbon nanotubes.” Their results aren’t very conclusive, or even all that dire, yet the study has gotten plenty of attention. Why? Well, for one thing, the study was pretty savvily designed to fit into ongoing policy debates about nano. One of the authors, for instance, is Andrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in DC.

Now, Maynard is a bona fide expert in this area, but his current day job is at a Washington think tank. His contribution to the article doesn’t appear to have been technical, but rather he “provided intellectual input and contributed to the writing of the manuscript.” I’m guessing that means he helped the authors figure out how to position their research in relation to previous studies on nanotubes, and used the considerable media profile of the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies to amplify their findings. It certainly looks like the Wilson Center primed science reporters to take a much keener interest in this study than they might normally.

There are certainly a lot of people with a stake in this debate. How it plays out in future years will be interesting.

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