December 23, 2005

Nanotechnology -- Corporations' Wet Dream

Ever heard of nanotechnology? It's the science of shrinking chemical components to sub-microscopic levels for use in potentially thousands of consumer products to make them more efficient, profitable, saleable, and inventive. Peter Montague writes about it this way:

For at least 10 years the U.S. has been banking on nanotechnology to fuel a new industrial revolution, pump up flagging rates of economic growth and make boatloads of money for already-wealthy investors, with perhaps some benefits trickling down to ordinary earthlings.

In a piece from Rachel's Democracy and Health News (the Rachel, in question, is Rachel Carson), Montague outlines the scope of this technology and how corporations around the globe, but especially in the United States, are vying for "command and control" of this revolutionary new technology.

Nanotechnology has already found its way into products such as sun screen, baby lotion, wrinkle-free trousers, tennis rackets, and computer hard-drives. According to Montague:

Nanotech has in fact been expanding at breakneck speed. The U.S. is investing more money, securing more patents (more than 1000 per year),and publishing more scientific papers on nanotechnology than competitors in any other country. The National Science Foundation estimates that by 2015 (a short 10 years from now) nanotech will be a $1 trillion business employing perhaps 2 million workers. And that's just the beginning, they hope. Presumably the nanotech industry, not the National Science Foundation.)

The federal government is investing $1 billion per year (4% of that into safety studies) into development of nanotech, while industry is funneling $8 billion per year, and even the states are funding $400 million per year in the hopes that their state can be home to the new silicon valley.

To get some sense of the almost-religious fervor of the corporate, pro-nanotech "evangelists," read what they say about this technology. In a report sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce, they use words like "essential to the future of humanity," holds the promise of "world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment."

This is about as Orwellian as present-day corporate propaganda gets. Their interest in world peace and universal prosperity is lip-service in the cause of their bottom lines, and control of a new and potentially huge technological marketplace is what is in their cold hearts.

Of course, what has been lost in this not-so-benevolent or eleemosynary ambition to spark a new technology revolution for "world peace" and "universal prosperity" are the safety and health issues surrounding nanotech. Montague points out that even the President's own science advisor, Dr. John H. Marburger III warns that the toxicity studies now underway are "a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done." This Washington Post article covers the nanotechnology issue and Marburger's comment.

Montague outlines how we are repeating the errors of not sufficiently regulating the nuclear industry, the chemical industry and the petro-chemical industry. We still have no effective answers to the waste products created by these industries. As a result, our earth has become a garbage dump for their refuse and offal, and we have relinquished our power as citizens to curtail, regulate, and even shut down their continued depradation and vandalization of our land, water and air.

"When substances are broken into nano-sized particles, their properties change dramatically -- metals may become transparent, inert substances may suddenly become chemically reactive, and dielectrics may begin to conduct electricity." When all these new particles are discarded (a tennis racket does not last forever, hard-drives are already piling up by the millions), we know absolutely nothing about how these "waste" nano-particles will react with the environment, in landfills, and in our drinking water.

Montague tells the story of one such nano-particle, called bucky balls, named after Buckminster Fuller (because of their shape). Bucky balls are probably not something that would make him proud. Here's Montague:

Scientists have been hoping that bucky balls could be coated with medicines and injected into sick people to deliver specific remedies to specific parts of the body. Alternatively, EPA [U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency] has been hoping bucky balls could be released into the environment to detoxify some of the billions of tons of toxicwastes left over from the previous industrial revolution (which was based on nuclear and petrochemical evangelism). Last year, nano researchers showed that bucky balls in water could migrate into the brains of fish. In December, researchers at Vanderbilt University announced that bucky balls are soluble in water and will enter cells and probably bind with DNA -- the doubly-coiled molecule that transmits life from one generation to the next. Two engineers at Vanderbilt concluded that bucky balls "bind to the spirals in DNA molecules in an aqueous environment, causing the DNA to deform, potentially interfering with its biological functions and possibly causing long-term negative side effects in people and other living organisms."


In contrast, Montague looks at the utter failure of restraining the chemical industry. He points out that "the vast majority of chemicals in commercial use today have never been safety-tested and 1800 new compounds enter commercial channels each year almost entirely untested for effects on human health and the environment." Why? The corporations and their minions in Washington DC will not allow it. It's a simple proposition. Let me repeat it. They will not allow it. And they have the political and economic clout to prevent it from happening.

And Montague points out that the nuclear industry has avoided the same kind of control and regulation and has been able to dump enormous quantities of poison in our oceans, in the arctic, and in the deserts of America. He asks, rhetorically, "is there any reason to believe that the nanotech industry will be different?"

In a final negative assessment of the nanotech industry, Montague describes a pact between Environmental Defense (formerly known as The Environmental Defense Fund) and the American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers' Association) in which the enviros essentially give permission to the chemos to proceed apace, but agree that they will all look at the potentially hazardous side-effects as, or after, they occur. This agreement, in part, "calls for international efforts to standardize testing and risk assessment protocols for nanotechnology development,and the drafting of measures to protect human health and the environment while regulators, industry and the scientific community continue to research and develop the technology." So who wins round one? The industry gets, at least passive, approval from a major enviro group, they get the "cover" of regulation, and they can move ahead with all due speed toward their new nirvana.

The key part of this pact with the devil is the regulatory part. When things go wrong, and the public is angered by the hazards of nano-technology, the industry will say "The government approved this, so I'm not liable."

Corporations have done a splendid job, on all fronts, of stealing huge sums of taxpayer money, while, all along, attacking government for everything that goes wrong.

In the Bush corporate era, is there any chance of stemming the onslaught of nanotech?

I think not. It's full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, and let's make some money!

Unless people are knowledgeable (this is not a hot news topic), unless people vote (voting is not a common American practice), and unless we have candidates who are aware and who can educate the citizenry, the corporate world will win again.

2 comments:

Alan B. Shalleck said...

I think you should do your homework. There is a major effort within the nanotech industry among responsible heads of companies to create nanotech safety and tox standards in conjunction with congress, the FDA and other regulatory agencies. There are at least 3 industry wide conferences this spring dealing with the risks you cite and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and the Industry Association have testified in front of congress for safe and doable standards for the entire industry. The Nanotech industry recognizes the risks you over play and is doing things itself to avoid a safety and toxicity melt down. For example, once a problem of persistence was recognized for Buckyballs, the industry went to work to find ways to make BBs soluble. Within a month two labs had found a way to coat a portion of the buckyball with an organic to convert it into a soluble entity.

Let's not blow off steam and scare the world about nanotechnology without understanding how responsible the industry itself is being. No one wants a repeat of the genetic bio mod debacle that occurred in Europe.

Stephen McArthur said...

See my follow-up Nanotechnology blog entry for a response to this comment from Mr. Shalleck.