Canberra Times, 8th May 2006, by John Hepburn
The release last month of a Federal Government discussion paper on the development of a national nanotechnology strategy created ‘nano ripples’ throughout the community – so small as to be imperceptible to the human eye.
Nanotechnology is being heralded as the next industrial revolution, redefining life as we know it, but with only one month for public comment, the development of a national strategy to manage the most powerful and transformative technology in human history will involve less public participation than a development application to retrofit your local pub. Given the stakes, it is high time that we sat up and started paying attention to the way this technology is set to reshape our world – and in whose interests.
The release of the discussion paper coincided with the first ever recall of a nanotechnology product. In Germany, there were 39 cases of serious respiratory problems and six people were hospitalized in late March after using the nanotech bathroom cleaner “Magic Nano”. While it is not yet clear if nanotechnology is to blame for these health problems, the important point is that no government anywhere regulates nano-scale materials if the same chemical substance has been vetted at the macro-scale. Yet it is precisely because nano materials behave differently to their macro-scale counterparts that they are attracting so much investment and research interest.
Nanoparticles are generally understood to be particles below 100 nano metres in size (about one eighty thousandth of the width of a human hair) that take advantage of property changes that occur at the nano-scale. Nano-scale materials may be more reactive, have different optical, magnetic and electric properties, and be much stronger or more toxic than their larger scale counterparts. For example, aluminum oxide – used in dentistry because of its inertness – can spontaneously explode at the nano- scale and is currently being tested as a potential rocket fuel.
There are a wide range of concerns with nanotechnology, not least of which is the issue of nanotoxicity. The defense systems of the human body are generally not designed to deal with such small particles. In general, nanoparticles of 70 nanometres can enter the lungs, a 50 nm particle can enter cells and a 30 nm particle can pass through the blood / brain barrier.
In response to concerns over health and environmental safety, the Royal Society in the United Kingdom released a report in 2004 with a series of wide ranging recommendations. They recommend that “Until more is known about the environmental impacts of nanoparticles and nanotubes, their release into the environment should be avoided as far as possible