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Mark Burch <[log in to unmask]>


Mark Burch <[log in to unmask]>


Mon, 2 Feb 2004 10:16:20 -1000





text/plain (564 lines)


 For Science, Nanotech Poses Big Unknowns

 By Rick Weiss
 Washington Post Staff Writer
 Sunday, February 1, 2004; Page A01

 Nanotechnology, the hot young science of making invisibly tiny machines
and materials, is stirring public
 anxiety and nascent opposition inspired by best-selling thrillers that
have demonized the science -- and
 new studies suggesting that not everything in those novels is fantasy.

 The technology, in which scientists manufacture things less than
1,000th the width of a human hair,
 promises smaller computers, stronger and lighter materials, even
"nanobots" able to cruise through
 people's blood vessels to treat diseases. Billions of dollars are being
pumped into the field, and products
 with science-fiction-like properties have already begun to hit the

 But studies have also shown that nanoparticles can act as poisons in
the environment and accumulate in
 animal organs. And the first two studies of the health effects of
engineered nanoparticles, published in
 January, have documented lung damage more severe and strangely
different than that caused by
 conventional toxic dusts.

 The risks of nanoparticles may ultimately prove to be minor and
avoidable, experts say. Nonetheless, in a
 move that industry supporters blame on a conflation of facts with
popular fiction -- such as Michael
 Crichton's best-selling thriller "Prey," in which rogue nanoparticles
wreak deadly havoc -- activists have
 begun to organize against the science.

 Some in California are trying to block construction of a nanotech
factory, noting that no government
 agency has developed safety rules for nano products. Others want a
global moratorium on the field until
 the risks are better understood.

 Now, realizing that public perception may be at a tipping point, the
fledgling industry and government
 agencies are taking a novel tack, funding sociologists, philosophers
and even ethicists to study the
 public's distrust of nano. Supporters of the approach say these experts
will serve as the industry's
 conscience and ensure that the science moves forward responsibly.
Others suspect it is an effort to
 defuse nano's critics.

 Both sides agree the stakes are huge. Government officials have called
nanotechnology the foundation for
 the "next industrial revolution," worth an estimated trillion dollars
within the coming decade. But if nano's
 supporters play their cards wrong, experts say -- by belittling public
fears as "irrational" or blundering into
 a health or environmental mishap -- the industry could find itself
mired in a costly public relations debacle
 even worse than the one that turned genetically engineered crops into

 "We can't risk making the same mistakes that were made with the
introduction of biotechnology," said
 Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, the nation's
largest funder of nanotechnology
 research. "We have to do this benignly and equitably."

 The struggle for public trust will be challenging, officials confess,
given the frightening tales that have been
 spun about nano in recent years.

 It started in 2000, when Bill Joy, co-founder of the computer giant Sun
Microsystems, wrote a chilling and
 widely read article warning that self-replicating nanomachines could
eventually overwhelm the human race
 and digest the living world into a mass of "gray goo" -- a scenario
that many scientists, but not all, reject.

 Then came "Prey." And in Dan Brown's No. 1 best-selling novel, "Angels
& Demons," the Catholic Church
 denounces nanoscience as evil. (It has not, although Britain's Prince
Charles has expressed alarm about
 the science.)

 In December it seemed the industry might at last be shaking off its
negative image: In an Oval Office
 ceremony, President Bush hailed the technology and signed a $3.7
billion bill to boost the research. But
 even as the president was signing that bill, researchers at the
National Science Foundation across the
 Potomac were attending a meeting on nano's social and environmental

 It is too soon to say whether nano will wean society from dirty
technologies or simply produce its own
 versions of the asbestos, diesel soot and DDT debacles that are the
legacy of the last industrial
 revolution. The science is still new, and the rhetoric on both sides
remains defensive and polarized.

 "This is a genuine opportunity for an engaged dialogue," said Davis
Baird, who, as chairman of the
 University of South Carolina's philosophy department and associate
director of the university's
 Nanocenter, is part of the nascent effort to separate nanomythology
from fact.

 "But it's going to be tricky," Baird said. " 'Risk' is a more subtle
concept than broad sections of the public

 Burgeoning Industry

 Nanotechnology started off as little more than a clever means of making
incredibly small things. IBM
 scientists made headlines in 1990 by painstakingly arranging 35 xenon
atoms to spell out the company's
 three-letter name, creating the world's smallest corporate logo.
Cornell University scientists followed with
 an invisibly small "nanoguitar." Its strings, each just a few atoms
across, could be plucked by laser
 beams to play notes 17 octaves higher than those produced by a
conventional guitar -- well above the
 human hearing range.

 Novelties though they were, these feats proved that with new tools in
hand scientists could arrange atoms
 as methodically as masons arrange bricks -- and in doing so build
materials never made in nature.

 Now the field is taking off.

 Last year alone, hundreds of tons of nanomaterials were made in U.S.
labs and factories. Microscopically
 thin sheets of tightly woven carbon atoms are being wrapped around the
cores of tennis balls to keep air
 from escaping. New fabrics have been endowed with nanofibers that keep
stains from settling in. Some
 sunscreens have ultraviolet-absorbing nanoparticles so small they
cannot reflect light, making them
 invisible. Tennis rackets and airplane bodies are being made with
nanomaterials whose atoms have been
 carefully arranged to make them especially strong.

 "This technology is coming, and it won't be stopped," said Phillip J.
Bond, the Department of Commerce's
 undersecretary for technology.

 Bond may be right. But it won't be for some people's lack of trying.

 Foremost among those activists is Pat Mooney of the Winnipeg-based ETC
Group, which has called for a
 moratorium on commercial production of nanomaterials until its risks
are better elucidated and regulations
 put in place.

 It is a radical stand , but industry knows it ignores Mooney at its
peril. He spearheaded much of the
 opposition to agricultural biotechnology -- opposition so successful
that it made biotech giant Monsanto
 Co.'s name synonymous with "PR failure" and resulted in European
restrictions on imported crops that
 continue to cost the United States hundreds of millions of dollars in
lost trade every year.

 "I do think there is a growing sense that they have to address these
issues more seriously than they did
 in the past," Mooney said.

 Scientists have known for years that tiny particles such as soot or
metal powders can, when inhaled,
 cause lung disease, cancer and other ailments. But the laws of
chemistry and physics work differently
 when particles get down to the nanoscale. As a result, even substances
that are normally innocuous can
 trigger intense chemical reactions -- and biological damage -- as
nanoscale specks.

 Gold, for example, is a famously inert metal. But nanoparticles of gold
are extremely chemically reactive,
 with the potential to disrupt biological pathways.

 "The smaller the particles, the more toxic they become," said Vyvyan
Howard, a University of Liverpool
 pathologist who studies the health effects of environmental aerosols.

 The first two studies to look for such problems appeared in the January
issue of the journal Toxicological
 Sciences, and the results, experts said, are less than reassuring.

 In the first study -- sponsored by NASA, an agency that hopes to make
great use of nanomaterials --
 Chiu-Wing Lam of Wyle Laboratories in Houston and his colleagues washed
three kinds of carbon
 nanotubes into the lungs of mice and examined them as much as three
months later. Nanotubes are
 incredibly strong, microscopic tubules made of carbon atoms; some are
already being produced in

 All three types caused lung granulomas -- abnormalities that interfere
with oxygen absorption and can
 progress to fatal lung disease. And although each mouse got just one
exposure, the lesions got worse
 over time, with some progressing to tissue death. On average the
reactions were worse than those in
 mice given equal amounts of quartz particles, which toxicologists use
as their "serious damage" standard.

 Carbon nanotubules, the team concluded, "can be more toxic than quartz,
which is considered a serious
 occupational health hazard in chronic inhalation exposures."

 The other study was led by David Warheit at DuPont Co.'s Haskell
Laboratory near Newark, Del., and
 involved similar exposures in rats. Surprising the scientists, 15
percent of the animals getting the highest
 dose died from lung blockages within 24 hours -- an outcome the group
had never seen for any lung toxin.
 Warheit said in an interview he did not believe the deaths were
indicative of any "inherent pulmonary
 toxicity" of nanotubes. But his other results were surprising, as well:
All the surviving rats developed
 granulomas, yet without the inflammatory responses that usually
accompany those lesions.

 "The response in the body was quite unique," said Vicki Colvin,
director of the Center for Biological and
 Environmental Nanotechnology, a federally funded research center at
Rice University that also gets
 support from the university and industry. "They behaved differently
than other carbon-based ultrafine

 "This is a very unusual lesion," Warheit agreed. "The question is, why
did that happen?"

 Warheit, whose company hopes to profit from nanotechnology, is
optimistic that nanomaterials will prove
 relatively nontoxic. He and Lam note that more realistic tests, in
which the particles are inhaled, have yet
 to be done. Those tests are expensive, both noted, and no one has
expressed a willingness to fund them.

 Inhaled particles do not always stop at the lungs. Experiments by
University of Rochester toxicologist
 Gunter Oberdoerster showed that nanoparticles can make their way from a
rat's throat into its brain,
 apparently via the nasal cavities and olfactory bulb.

 "Who knows how they interact with cells there?" Oberdoerster asked.
"Maybe they do something bad and
 lead to brain diseases."

 Other scientists have wondered at recent meetings whether nanoparticles
can cross the placenta and get
 into a developing fetus.

 Scientists in France recently showed that carbon nanotubes -- thousands
of which could fit inside a cell --
 can easily penetrate living cells and even make their way into the
nucleus, the inner sanctum where DNA

 The researchers hope to harness this capacity and use nanotubes as
vehicles to deliver drugs into cells.
 But the approach could easily backfire, they conceded.

 In many instances, for reasons that remain unclear, the nanotubes
themselves killed the cells.

 Environmental Effects

 The effects of nanoparticles in nature are similarly unclear. Depending
on whom you ask, the strange
 chemistry of nanomaterials could save or destroy the environment.

 Tom Kalil, special assistant to the chancellor for science and
technology at the University of California at
 Berkeley, is among the optimists.

 "Recent results suggest that nanoscale particles could play a very
important role in environmental
 cleanup, dramatically reducing the costs associated with remediating
Superfund sites," Kalil said.
 Engineered nanospheres, which resemble tiny molecular cages, can trap
polychlorinated biphenyls
 (PCBs) and toxic metals, he said. And researchers are designing
nanopore materials that can filter out
 bacteria, viruses and toxins from water.

 But not all nanoparticles are so green.

 Titanium dioxide, for example, is a generally nonreactive substance
used in many products, including skin
 lotions and house paints. Increasingly, however, it is being made in
the form of nano-size particles. And
 tests show that they are highly reactive, generating chemically "hot"
free radicals that can literally burn up
 bacteria. That has some experts worrying about impacts on soil ecology
if the particles are released.

 Robin Davies, a British scientist with Soil Environment Services Ltd.
in Newcastle upon Tyne, said even
 slight changes in bacterial populations can have major effects on soil
chemistry and on its ability to
 support plant life. Knocking out soil microbes, he said, "can both
create serious environmental pollution
 and also impoverish the soil for many decades."

 No one knows how much "nanolitter" is being released into the
environment, experts said, and disposal
 rules have yet to be crafted.

 Even more distressing to activists, nanotechnology is starting to be
exploited on a large scale in the great
 outdoors. Last summer, for example, under contract to the Bureau of
Indian Affairs, Utah-based Sequoia
 Pacific Research Co. sprayed a proprietary "nanostructured solution" on
1,400 acres in New Mexico to try
 to stabilize the soil after forest fires destroyed the local
vegetation. Company officials will not reveal the
 ingredients in their product, saying only that it does not contain
engineered nanoparticles. It works, they
 said, by triggering cross-reactions among naturally occurring
nanoparticles in the soil.

 But activists are upset that what appears to have been the world's
largest environmental release of a
 product designed to operate on the nanoscale occurred without federal
review or impact studies.

 Scientists also want to know what happens to nanoparticles months and
years after their release.
 Researchers at Rice University's CBEN have shown that like many other
nonbiodegradable pollutants,
 they accumulate in living things over time, with ever-increasing
concentrations in microbes, in the worms
 that eat those microbes, and in animals higher up the food chain.

 CBEN researchers emphasized that accumulation does not necessarily mean
harm, and others dismiss
 the idea that nanoparticles pose an environmental threat. Clark
University risk specialist Roger Kasperson
 said that reminds him of the early days of the atomic era, when experts
similarly unburdened by data
 predicted that nuclear power plants could never melt down and that
electricity would become too cheap to

 "Critics of nuclear power were called irrational," said Kasperson, who
directs the Stockholm Environment
 Institute, an international research organization focused on
sustainable development. "The starting point to
 me is to acknowledge that we don't know what the risks of nano are, and
we don't know what the benefits
 are, and we won't for some time."

 Incomplete Data

 Everybody agrees that if nanotechnology is going to be the next
industrial revolution, it would be nice if it
 were a cleaner revolution than the last one. Nobody wants to read
Rachel Carson writ small.

 "In the old industrial revolution, we learned too late," said David
Rejeski, director of the Foresight and
 Governance Project at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International
Center for Scholars. "We
 ended up chasing waste streams, and we still are."

 But the regulatory schemes that came into being as a result of that
mess are not designed to cope with
 the challenges of nanopollution.

 Currently, companies seeking regulatory approval to manufacture or
release potentially toxic substances
 are required to answer two basic questions: "What is it?" and "How much
of it will there be?" But neither
 question works well for nanotechnology, because substances that are
nontoxic in bulk form can be deadly
 when produced on the nanoscale.

 "We're so keyed in to the composition of the substance when we think of
toxicology, but on the
 nanoscale the [particle] size and surface chemistry will probably be
the most important feature," CBEN
 director Colvin said. "That's an interesting paradigm shift."

 Even when huge amounts of nanoparticles are made and packed together,
the underlying presence of all
 those microscopic particles can make big materials behave in strange

 "There's no doubt from everything we've found that even in aggregates,
nanoparticles still express their
 nanoparticleness, if you will," said Howard, the University of
Liverpool aerosol expert.

 This truth has not been integrated into the regulatory world. Take the
growing number of factories in the
 United States making carbon nanotubes, which are made of graphite but
behave very differently from
 ordinary graphite.

 Like all factories, nanotube facilities must submit "material safety
data sheets" describing the substances
 they handle and assuring that appropriate measures are in place to keep
human exposures below
 mandated thresholds.

 But the data sheets that nanotube factories are filing to regulators
are simply for graphite.

 "You can't simultaneously proclaim a product is new and has all these
novel properties and at the same
 time claim that it can be regulated as if it were nothing different,"
said Eric Drexler, chairman of the
 Foresight Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., a nonprofit educational
organization focused on advanced
 technologies. "You can't have it both ways. If these have new
properties, they have to be examined and
 regulated that way."

 Mooney said he has been struck by the wide variation in precautions
different countries have demanded.
 In some factories, he said, workers are using high-tech air filtering
equipment to guard against inhaling
 nanoparticles or contaminating the plant. At others, he said, workers
wear cheap face masks with pore
 sizes so large as to offer no real protection.

 "It's like having a basketball net over your head to protect you from
mosquitoes," he said.

 Federal officials acknowledge they have not developed safety standards
for nanoproducts, and the
 agencies are still getting up to speed on the topic.

 Norris Alderson, director of the Food and Drug Administration's office
of science, said the agency had so
 far approved six nano-based products: two drugs, two medical devices
and two sunscreen lotions. But he
 did not know whether special safety tests had been required. Pressed
for those details, an agency
 representative called back to report that, in fact, no nano-based
products have been approved. No
 explanation for the confusion was offered.

 At the Environmental Protection Agency, after repeated requests for
access to an officer in charge of
 nano-related environmental reviews, an official at the agency said
there was no one with any information to
 provide, and "as of now there are no specific regulations."

 Many industry representatives and some independent experts argue that
it is too soon to slap restrictions
 on nano.

 "There is a long-term concern, but where is the immediate concern?"
asked Thomas Theis, director of
 physical sciences at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., who sits
on two key federal advisory
 committees dealing with nano. "We have the Environmental Protection
Agency. We have OSHA [the
 Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. That's their function."

 But virtually everyone agrees that much more research is needed than is
currently being funded to answer
 questions about toxicity.

 "It's clear we are underinvesting in this area," Kalil said.

 Only this year, for example, is the EPA considering proposals for what
would be its first funded studies on
 the potential impacts of nanoparticles on the environment.

 The agency's request for proposals, published last year, begins
candidly, "There is a serious lack of
 information about the human health and environmental implications of
manufactured nanomaterials."

 Potential Shock Waves

 It will be years before the first studies of nanotechnology's health
and environmental impacts come
 together into a body of evidence, but government and industry officials
know that public opinion could
 solidify long before then. In Berkeley, residents and some members of
the city health commission have
 been staging protests against plans to build a nanotech "molecular
foundry" in the hills above town,
 sending a shiver down the spines of some nano advocates.

 Government and industry officials say they are aware of nanotech's
societal and environmental
 implications and can be trusted to be taking them seriously.

 Mihail Roco, chief of nanotechnology for the National Science and
Technology Council, a Cabinet-level
 group that advises the president on matters of science, likes to note
that he convened the first federal
 meeting on the societal implications of the science in 2000, two years
before Greenpeace came out with
 its report on the same subject and three years before Mooney's ETC
Group published its 80-page
 manifesto about the threats posed by nano.

 Yet most of the social concerns addressed at that meeting -- and at a
similar meeting Roco convened in
 December -- were related not to the direct health or environmental
risks of nanotechnology but to the likely
 social and economic disruptions as the technology invades older
manufacturing sectors and displaces
 workers. Much of the emphasis has been on how to beef up science and
engineering curricula in schools
 to handle nanotechnology's workforce needs.

 Roco also has said repeatedly that about 10 percent of the current nano
budget in this country is devoted
 to environmental issues. But experts familiar with the numbers say that
figure is deceiving. Almost all that
 money is going to study how nanotechnology may profitably be used to
address existing environmental
 problems -- an important question, scientists said, but one quite
different than that of how nanotech may
 negatively affect the environment.

 And although the nano spending bill that Bush recently signed calls for
social and environmental concerns
 to be addressed, efforts to include a minimum dollar amount for such
studies lost out in the final draft.

 Some observers have been heartened by the government's recent funding
of social scientists and ethicists
 as representatives of the public interest to make sure the new science
is introduced responsibly and
 safely. But ethics cannot substitute for solid scientific assessments
of risk, critics note. And even some
 of the social scientists who have received those grants say they are
skeptical about their roles.

 "They're very concerned about public perceptions," said one recipient,
speaking on condition of
 anonymity. "But a lot of it's about, 'How can we make sure people are
not afraid so we can go ahead with
 this?' " Still, nano advocates express confidence that the industry
will be straight with the public. "The big
 companies get it," said Kristen Kulinowski of Rice University.

 If nothing else, there's always the fear of repeating history. No
nanotech company, she said, wants to be
 the next Monsanto.

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