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Nanotechnology Safety and Ethics Are a Major Concern, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

From the earliest days of nanotech, there have been concerns about the effect that this technology could have on health and the environment.  For example, critics have dreamed up the possibility of a “gray goo” made of self-replicating nano-robots that would destroy everything in their path and eventually cover the entire earth.  Realistic and more present concerns involve the impact that ultra-stable and minute particles such as buckyballs could have on the environment by acting as pollutants or toxins.  Very little is known about the properties of nanoparticles and how the particles would interact with living organisms.  What happens when we scale up production of these materials and they become a sizable presence in factories and dump sites, or are released into the water and air?

Early studies that inspire concern have been conducted at DuPont Haskell Laboratory, Duke University and Rice University.  For example, a researcher at Duke University found that exposure to fullerenes can damage brain cells in fish by increasing a process called peroxidation.  A study of human cell cultures exposed to fullerenes at Rice University found similar damage as that seen in the study of fish.

Some critics are calling for increased regulation of these substances until more is known about them, in a debate that is very similar to the concerns in the agribio field about genetically modified plants.  Some preliminary studies have shown that buckyballs can be extremely toxic in aquatic environments, damaging the brains of fish and killing off large amounts of water fleas, which are an integral part of the food chain in many ecosystems.  Another study showed that carbon nanotubes introduced into the lungs of rats caused lesions.  Though these studies are far from formalized and require much further inquiry, the initial results are disturbing.  Although the U.S. government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative has received billions of dollars since 2001 for nanotech research and development, only a small percentage has been spent on assessment of potential risks.  In 2008, for example, the EPA initiated a $1.6 million research program to identify potential uses and study nanoscale materials that are subject to the Toxic Substances Control Act.  In February 2010, the EPA announced the development of a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) as well as other regulations to address potential health and environmental risks from nanoscale materials. 


Internet Research Tip:

See the Nanotechnology page for Workplace Safety & Health Topics ( ) for a listing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 10 critical top areas with regard to nanotech safety concerns.


The Consortium for Manufactured Nanomaterial Bioavailability and Environmental Exposure, established in 2011, was a $5 million, five-year joint project between researchers at Rice University, Clemson University, Edinburgh Napier University, the Natural History Museum (London), the University of Birmingham, the University of California-Davis and the University of Exeter.  The project’s mission was to create a “plug and play” tool for tracking data regarding nanomaterial size and type, local water chemistry and soil types, among other factors.


More information on the environmental safety and control issues in nanotechnology is available from the following organizations:


U.S. Food and Drug Administration,

Washington, DC                

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,

Washington, DC               

U.K. Royal Society,

London, England          

Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, Rice University,

Houston, Texas                



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