Potential risks of nanotechnology

Development of the potential of nanotechnology is only at its starting point, with relatively simple applications and products already entering or at the threshold of the market, many of which involve the application of nanoparticles. One example is nanoscalar carbon black, added to automobile tires to improve abrasion resistance, which has already been in use for a very long time. In many cases, the examples discussed can also be viewed as a continuation of lines of decades-long development. Many of these examples still compete with older traditional solutions. In such cases, nano-scale innovations are thus only replacing or enhancing already existing conventional solutions. The novelty of these examples is for the most part only to be found in the nanoscalar size of the particles.

Nonetheless, the question arises as to the extent to which the drive into the area of nanotechnology entails new types of effects. Do nanoscalar materials have new (or do they enhance already known) properties that could be detrimental to the environment and/ or human health? Such new and/or enhanced effects are normally to be expected. After all, it is such altered or enhanced properties that make nanomaterials interesting for production purposes.

However, questions concerning new (or enhanced) properties or effects and possible negative side effects and consequences have so far rarely been systematically investigated or formulated. The neglect of side effects is partly the result of institutional delay. Established procedures for regulating hazardous substances have not yet been adapted to address these new issues. The non-governmental organization ETC Group (ETC Group 2002), for example, notes that the addition of considerable quantities of titanium dioxide nanoparticles to high-sun-protection-factor suntan lotions required no new investigations in the USA. Conventional titanium dioxide had already been tested and approved; new applications of titanium dioxide nanoparticles were considered to be equivalent to pre-nanotechnology applications with respect to environmental and health impacts (see ETC Group 2002). Whether this equivalency is justified, cannot be settled here, but in light of the altered properties found at the nano-level, it should at least be addressed.

This is of particular importance, knowing as little as we do, so far, about the environmental and health aspects of nanoparticles. Those investigations that have been conducted on the effects of ultra-fine particles resulting from combustion processes are alarming.

However it should be noted that the common properties of nano-scale systems are predominantly due to the scale of the materials and products. This means, on the one hand, that in nanotechnology's role as a cross-sectional technology, problems may occur that are primarily "contingent on the technology." On the other hand, other problems may arise from a specific combination of circumstances within the context of specific applications. The technologies as well as the application contexts may greatly diverge and likewise the potential risks to environment and health that need to be addressed. For example, nanotechnological procedures and products and their impact in the field of biotechnology will differ fundamentally from those in areas such as electronics and thin-film technology. Moreover, different impacts on the various environmental compartments can also be expected.

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