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UK Report: More Hits than Misses on Nanotech



After a year-long investigation, the United Kingdom's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering released its final report today examining the health, safety, environmental, ethical and societal implications of nano-scale technologies. The report was commissioned by the UK government last June. The UK's Trade Union Congress today supported the Royal Society's report and called for strong regulations to prevent worker exposure to manufactured nanoparticles. "There have been plenty of red flags, but the dollar signs have blotted out the warnings signs," said Rory O'Neill, spokesman for the Trade Union Congress.

"The report is a good start toward addressing the potential negative health and environmental impacts of nano-scale technologies, particularly the use of nanoparticles," said Jim Thomas, European Programme Manager of the ETC Group based in Oxford. "Just one year ago Lord Sainsbury [UK Science Minister] said that nanotech was adequately covered by regulations - he was wrong. We welcome the Royal Society's precautionary language on the environment and strong recommendations on nanoparticles."

Today's report vindicates many of those, like ETC Group, who have expressed concerns about the dangers of nanotechnology for human health and the environment in the absence of regulatory oversight.

Importantly, the Royal Society considered many broader societal issues and seems to have listened carefully to the key questions raised by Prince Charles in his July 11 editorial on nanotechnology appearing in The Independent on Sunday - who controls nanotechnology and who will benefit from it?

"The report is undeniably impressive and constructive. It raises all the right questions, even though some of its answers are incomplete and uneven," notes Thomas. "While acknowledging the issues of ownership and control as fundamental, it fails to adequately address them. There is no discussion of nanotech monopolies or the implications of nanotech for the global South. And despite the UK's colossal controversy over agbiotech, the report fails to examine the impacts of nanotech on agriculture and food production."

The Royal Society's report also falls short in its assessment of the potential risks of nanobiotechnology. It naovely puts the impacts of nanobiotech in the distant future (more than 10 years), and it starts with the premise that nanobiotech applications will not include the production and enhancement of biological material through genetic modification technologies. Considering genetic modification and nano-scale technologies as separate spheres of science allows the authors to dismiss self-replication as an irrelevant concern. "In reality, nanotech and biotech are already converging to create hybrid materials, machines and living organisms," asserts Thomas. "The report itself acknowledges hybrid bio-nano machines and recognizes converging technologies as a profound issue. The report's dismissal of the relevance of genetic modification to nanobiotechnology is contradictory."

Health, Safety & Environment: The Royal Society's report considered but rejected the need for a moratorium on nanotechnology, which the ETC Group called for two years ago, but it unambiguously concludes that uncertainties about the risks of manufactured nanoparticles "need to be addressed immediately" to safeguard workers and consumers. The Royal Society's decision to reject the call for a moratorium seems to be based more on politics than science in light of their bold recommendations:

_ Ingredients in the form of nanoparticles should undergo full safety assessment (even if the substance has already been assessed in larger forms) before being commercialized. [De facto moratorium? What should be done about nanotech products already on the shelf?]

* The use of free manufactured nanoparticles (not fixed to or within a material) in environmental applications such as remediation should be prohibited until appropriate research has been undertaken.

* Chemicals in the forms of nanoparticles should be treated by regulators as new substances (thus acknowledging that properties of nanoscale particles may be different from the same chemical substance in larger forms).

* Factories and research laboratories should treat manufactured nanoparticles and nanotubes as if they are hazardous and seek to reduce or remove them from waste streams.

* Industry should make public all relevant data related to safety assessments of manufactured nanoparticles, and demonstrate how they have taken into account that properties of nanoparticles may be different from larger forms.

* Consumer products containing manufactured nanoparticles should be labeled on ingredients lists.

* All relevant regulatory bodies in the UK should review whether existing regulations are appropriate to protect humans and the environment from potential nanotech hazards, and report on how regulatory gaps will be addressed.

* With the support of the UK, the European Commission should review the adequacy of current regulations with respect to the introduction of nanoparticles into any consumer products.

Convergence: The report notes that the future convergence of nanotech with biotechnology, information and cognitive sciences could be used for "radical human enhancement" and that, if realized, would raise "profound ethical questions" regarding what we understand to be human, normal and abnormal. With input from Richard Light, Director of the Centre for Disability and Human Rights, and from Gregor Wolbring, Director of the Centre for Bioethics, Culture and Disability, the report points to the problematic nature of a "technical fix" to address "disability." Clearly, new technologies can't solve social injustices.

The Bigger Picture: The report recommends that the impacts of emerging technologies "be addressed with some urgency." Specifically, the Royal Society recommends the establishment of a multi-stakeholder group to look at new and emerging technologies and to identify and advise "at the earliest possible stage" where potential health, safety, environmental, social, ethical and regulatory issues may arise and how to address them. The group's work "should be made public so that all stakeholders can be encouraged to engage with the emerging issues." The report also recommends that the government initiate adequately funded public dialogue around the development of nanotechnologies.

"We are pleased to see that the Royal Society takes seriously the need to create a new body that has the mandate to assess the broader societal impacts of new technologies, similar to what we have called for at the intergovernmental level," said Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group. The ETC Group advocates for the establishment of a United Nations body, the International Convention on the Evaluation of New Technologies.


For further information:
Jim Thomas, ETC Group (UK) jim@etcgroup.org tel +44 (0)1865 201719;
mobile: +44 (0)7752 106806
Pat Mooney, ETC Group (Canada) etc@etcgroup.org, (613) 241-2267;
mobile: (613) 222-6214
Silvia Ribeiro, ETC Group (Mexico) silvia@etcgroup.org mobile: +52 55 2653 3330 Hope Shand and Kathy Jo Wetter, ETC Group (USA) kjo@etcgroup.org, hope@etcgroup.org
tel: +1 919 960-5223


EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik answered questions from children on nanotechnology when he visited the nanoTruck in Brussels on 15 June.

A German initiative, the nanoTruck is a mobile science theme park exhibiting some of the latest science and technology at the nano dimension in a variety of disciplines. Inside the truck are magnetic fluids, measuring instruments that make atoms visible, and scratch-proof coatings for cars. The organisers encourage visitors try out the exhibits themselves, making it an ideal place to introduce the younger generation to the wonders of nanoscience and nanotechnology. The children present unanimously agreed that a visit to the nanoTruck was preferable to a classroom lesson!

Questions ranged from why nanotechnology is important, whether it can be studied at university, and what the job prospects are for graduates of nanotechnology.

Mr Potocnik reassured the children that there will be no shortage of jobs for those with knowledge of nanoscience and nanotechnology, due to the cutting edge nature of these fields.

The children confessed that they had not heard of nanotechnology before being invited to visit the nanoTruck, to which the Commissioner replied: 'Frankly, before I took this job, it was the same for me! But in a few years you will hear all about it because it is very promising.'

The nanoTruck is funded by the German Ministry for Education and Research. The truck began its journey in 2004, and due to its phenomenal success will now continue touring until the end of 2006. It is on the road for 240 days per year, and typically visits around 100 locations. It is always accompanied by PhD students from different disciplines so that all exhibits can be explained to visitors. The truck received over 100,000 visitors in 2004.

For further information on the nanoTruck, please visit:
http://www.nanoTruck.de


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This story has been adapted from a news release -
Diese Meldung basiert auf einer Pressemitteilung -
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