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The downside of nanotechnology

NANOTECHNOLOGY -- the design and manipulation of materials at the atomic and molecular scale -- has great potential to deliver environmental and other benefits. Novel properties emerge as materials reach the nano-scale, opening the door to innovations in cleaner energy production, energy efficiency, water treatment, and environmental remediation.

Few regions are better suited for responsibly developing nanotechnology than New England. The preeminence of Boston's medical and public health research community is well recognized, and Boston's vibrant science and technology culture has already put the area in an emerging leadership role in nanotechnology. When Small Times Magazine released its annual list of Top 10 States for Nanotechnology last March, Massachusetts ranked second only to California.

The $13 billion in nanoproducts already on the market represent just the beginning of a worldwide boom -- sales of nanotech products are predicted to reach $2.6 trillion by 2014. The United States is already taking a leadership role in developing this market. Half of the $4 billion spent to date by corporations and investors globally on nanotech R&D came from the United States, and the United States is by far the world leader in nanotech patent applications and nanotechnology companies.

Yet the very characteristics that make nanomaterials so promising are also sources of concern about their environmental and health risks. History is littered with technologies that once seemed benign but were discovered years later to have devastating effects on the environment. Examples include the pesticide DDT, marvelously effective at killing insects, but also, it turned out, lethal to birds of prey like eagles, falcons, and osprey. Another example is the chemical family chlorofluorocarbons, which practically codified the law of unintended consequences. CFCs were great coolants for air conditioners and refrigerators, but decades after their introduction in the 1920s they were shown to destroy the Earth's ozone layer, which protects us from the sun's harsh ultraviolet radiation.

Nanomaterials are valuable precisely because they behave in radically new ways. But while the ability of some nano particles to pass through a cell could lead to breakthroughs in cancer or Alzheimer's treatment, these same features can pose environmental and health risks. Preliminary studies have shown that some nanomaterials are able to damage skin, brain, and lung tissue. Discovered in 1985, a microscopic form of carbon called buckyballs (named after Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome), has the potential to take electrical and optical applications to the next level.

Buckyballs could enable faster Internet speeds or more rapid delivery of communications down phone lines, cable lines, and through cellular networks, making today's split-second delivery seem sluggish. But preliminary studies suggest that these same materials can kill waterborne bacteria and break down brain cells in fish. So what happens when buckyballs wash out of consumer products and into sewage plants that discharge into lakes, rivers, or coastal waters? Or when factories that produce or use buckyballs discharge wastes directly into waterways? Right now, we simply don't know.

Reaping the benefits of nanotechnology without unintended harm will require a mix of corporate leadership, coordinated research, and informed regulation. Given nanotechnology's potential for profit, it is in companies' own interest to protect their investment with careful risk analysis and comprehensive risk management before launching nanoproducts into the marketplace.

Federal and state governments are pouring more than $1 billion per year into developing nanotech applications, while grossly underinvesting (less than 5 percent) in research to understand the potential risks of nanomaterials. Earlier this month, the Museum of Science in Boston received a $20 million grant to create nanotechnology exhibits and programs at science museums around the country. Incredibly, this figure is more than half the total amount the government is now spending on nanotech risk research, and roughly twice what it spent in 2004. Government should dramatically increase funding to develop the basics of nanotechnology risk research, which companies can build upon for product-specific risk evaluations. Regulators need to review and update safety and health regulations designed for a world before nanotechnology, considering the full lifecycle of nanomaterials through production, use, and disposal.

Boston has brought the country dazzling innovations in medicine, science, and technology and should take the lead to responsibly manage the potential risks of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology may be the study of small things, but the roles we need Boston to play are large indeed.

Gwen Ruta is regional director of the Boston office of Environmental Defense.

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