The nanotechnology industry is increasingly promoting nano as a “green” technology that will improve the environmental performance of existing industries, reduce our consumption of resources and energy, and allow us to achieve environmentally benign economic expansion. But Friends of the Earth is concerned that nanotechnology could facilitate the radical expansion of resource and energy consumption, and pollution and waste emission, while introducing a whole new range of serious ecological risks.

Why we should be sceptical of industry claims that nanotechnology will solve our environment problems

Nanotechnology’s proponents claim it will solve problems of water scarcity, pollution, climate chaos etc, while enabling us to continue with “business as usual”. These claims should be treated with great caution. History shows that many past technologies that offered efficiency gains failed to translate into environmental savings, while our experience to date with nanotechnology suggests that the industry continues to put short-term profits ahead of environmental safety.

Senior scientists warn that nanoparticles and nanodevices may constitute a whole new class of non-biodegradable pollutants. However, the nano industry has rushed ahead with the commercialision of literally hundreds, if not thousands of products that contain nanomaterials, even though nanotoxicity’s risks for the environment and human health remain poorly understood.

There are currently hundreds, if not thousands, of products already on the global market that contain nanomaterials, including sunscreens, cosmetics, fabrics, fertilisers, food products, industrial catalysts, surface coatings, paints, lights, specialist building materials, automobile and aerospace components. Visit the consumer products inventory hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies for examples of some of these products. Nanomaterials could enter the environment as a result of these products’ manufacture, use or disposal.

Environmental risk research remains grossly unfunded but preliminary studies raise serious red warning flags

The environmental risks of nanotechnology remain poorly understood partly because of the extremely small amount of funding that is allocated to this research. For example, the United States government spent 33% of the US $1.3 billion 2006 National Nanotechnology Initiative budget on military applications. However the Woodrow Wilson Center estimates that only US$11 million (0.85% of the 2006 NNI budget) was dedicated to highly relevant research into health and environment risks.

The little research completed cautions against broad extrapolation of results. However preliminary scientific studies demonstrate that some nanomaterials already in widespread commercial use pose serious toxicity risks to the environment and to human health.

Carbon fullerenes (buckyballs) have been found to cause brain damage in largemouth bass, a species accepted by United States regulatory agencies as a model for defining ecotoxicological effects. Fullerenes have also been found to kill water fleas and have bactericidal properties. Byproducts associated with the manufacture of single-walled carbon nanotubes caused increased mortality and delayed development of a small estuarine crustacean Amphiascus tenuiremis. The antimicrobial properties of many nanoparticles have led to concerns that they may shift into microbial populations and disrupt signalling between nitrogen-fixing bacteria and their plant hosts. Any significant disruption of nitrogen fixing could halt plant growth and have serious negative impacts for the functioning of entire ecosystems. This would have significant ecologic and economic impacts. High levels of exposure to nanoscale aluminium have been found to stunt root growth in five commercial crop species. Early studies also suggest that microorganisms and plants may be able to produce, modify and concentrate nanoparticles that can then bioaccumulate (or even biomagnify) along the food chain.

Intentional mass release of nanomaterials into the environment is already happening…

Literally dozens of sites in the United States have already been injected with tens of tonnes of nanoparticles for remediation or waste treatment purposes, despite recommendations from the United Kingdom’s Royal Society that intentional environmental release of nanomaterials should be prohibited, and no study having being carried out to assess the safety of these nanoparticles for environmentally relevant species. There is little published, peer-reviewed information available about the outcomes of these releases, however they are of serious concern given early indications that nanoparticles present a whole new range of serious ecological threats. See the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s nanotechnology White Paper for an overview of some of the concerns associated with nano-remediation.

A disturbing new development has come in the form of intentional mass release of nanomaterials in order to claim carbon credits. A United States company named Planktos is currently planning to release 50 tonnes of iron nanoparticles in a 10,000 km square area around the Galapagos Islands in order to generate a huge algal bloom that it claims will absorb carbon dioxide, thereby enabling it to claim carbon credits. On 22 June an intergovernmental scientific committee of the London Convention (the main treaty governing ocean dumping) issued a tough consensus “statement of concern” about the activity. They warned that attempting to sequester carbon through iron fertilization of ocean surfaces has serious environmental risks and lacks scientific evidence. It is crucial that in our anxiety to take action to avert dangerous climate change that we do not take reckless action based on nano-remediation that simply generates its own serious ecological problems.

An absence of government oversight and public debate

In their 2004 report, the highly respected United Kingdom’s Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering called for nanomaterials to be treated as new chemicals, for their safety to be assessed by independent scientific authorities prior to the commercial release of products containing nanoscale ingredients, for the environmental release of nanoparticles to be “avoided as far as possible”, and for their intentional release for remediation or other purposes to “be prohibited until appropriate research has been undertaken and it can be demonstrated that the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks”. Next generation applications of nanotechnology will pose more complex risks as nanodevices enter manufacturing, and the products of nanobiotechnology are used in agriculture, the military and for environmental remediation.

However existing regulations in Australia and internationally still fail to differentiate between larger particles and nanoparticles; there are still no nanotechnology-specific national level regulations anywhere in the world. There is also incredibly low public awareness about nanotechnology and no mechanism for public participation in government decision making about its introduction.

The urgent need for a moratorium on nanotechnology’s commercialisation

Given the significant environmental risks and challenges associated with nanotechnology, Friends of the Earth Australia repeats its call for a moratorium on the commercial use of nanotechnology until regulations are introduced to protect the health of humans and the environment from the risks of nanotoxicity, and to manage nanotechnology’s serious social implications.

For a more detailed, fully referenced discussion of nanotechnology’s environmental risks and challenges, click here.