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