THE WORLD ACCORDING TO NANO
MENTION THE WORD ‘NANO’ to North Americans and most would reflexively think of the little mp3 player made famous by Steve Jobs and Apple Inc. That is about to change. Today, nanoparticles are being touted in almost every kind of product imaginable, from toothpaste and ‘anti-aging’ face creams to roofing materials.
Nanoparticles were first heralded twenty years ago by K. Eric Drexler, an MIT graduate, who wrote a book called Engines of Creation. This landmark book announced the coming of these “molecule-sized machines,” as Drexler put it. These ‘machines’ were termed “nanoparticles” and Drexler predicted that they would change the world in rather Utopian ways.
Nanotechnology, he said, would not only produce extremely reliable, uniform, recyclable, inexpensive, and "smart" products, but would also be able to identify and destroy cancer cells; break toxic pollutants down into harmless components, and perhaps most exciting of all, would supplant the earth's petroleum-based manufacturing industry and replace it with more energy-efficient, precise, and environmentally safe methods.
Among the most intoxicating prospects for nanotech is the potential for the widespread expansion of solar technologies, especially ones that would utilize the entire light spectrum of the sun in order to deliver more solar energy to tens of millions of homes throughout North America. It is complicated stuff, but suffice it to say that current solar technologies are using a mere 15-20% of the sun’s available energy. So instead of solar panels, billions of these nanoparticles would become part of the roof’s coating. They would not only reflect the red, green, and blue light that current solar panels transform into energy, but this revolutionary roofing material would attract the entire color spectrum of the sun, thereby increasing the energy output by three to four times over their modern day solar cousins.
If this dramatic vision of the future comes to pass, however, many scientists, academics and others fear that nanotechnology will unleash a torrent of unknown consequences on the environment — and human health. Now is the time, they argue, for nanotechnology to be studied — and regulated before it is “hijacked by industry.”
Unlikely as it may seem, the $200 billion global cosmetics industry is one of the emerging players in the burgeoning field of nanotechnology. Cosmetics giant L’Oreal already ranks sixth among nanotechnology patent holders with nearly 200 nanotechnology patents. According to the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change at Lancaster University in Britain, the cosmetics industry as a whole holds the largest number of patents for nanoparticles, including “toothpaste, sunscreen, shampoo, hair conditioner, lipstick, eye shadow, after shave, moisturizer or deodorant.” Furthermore, the report claims that “industry is leading the way” in researching and implementing the use of nanomaterials.
In 2004, the UK’s Royal Society delivered a report stating that “while nanotechnology may offer many benefits both now and in the future,” there is an immediate need to “address uncertainties about both the health and environmental effects of nanoparticles.” Five years later, despite these concerns, there are still no regulations that specifically cover their manufacture and marketing to consumers.
The truth is, millions of us are guinea pigs. In addition to lotions and the aforementioned products, we are unknowingly using hundreds of other nano-enhanced commercial products daily. These include some pharmaceutical-based nutritional supplements, processed meats, chocolate drinks, and baby food, to name but a few. According to an eye-opening report by Friends of the Earth from 2006, nanomaterials have also been widely adopted in packaging such as antibacterial kitchenware and other food containers, not to mention an array of chemicals used in agriculture.
Lastly, in a world where security has become of paramount concern to all governments, Ian Kerr, Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology at the University of Ottawa has raised one other potentially frightening scenario involving nanotechnology. Kerr says that governments could spy on its own people by utilizing these technologies — and that there is very little we can do about it. Called “human-area networking,” Kerr claims that the human body could become a conduit for electronic transmissions of all kinds. He postulates that the government could program people with information, affect one’s behavior and give them instructions — ala the Manchurian Candidate. What’s worse is that some of these tracking devices, it appears, would be ingestible. "We are entering a new era in privacy. Current concepts of consent will not be adequate," says Mr. Kerr in one of the grandest understatements of our era.
As I have explored nanotechnology over the past three years, I’ve often imagined how mankind could be aided if these tiny Nanos could bring forth life-changing innovations to both energy and medicine. I have also pictured several sobering future-world scenarios — 21st century apparitions that go far beyond George Orwell’s most terrifying visions.
At the very least, nanotechnology should be labeled on all consumer products; studied and debated by skeptics — not just industry; and ultimately regulated before multinational corporations and governments unleash nanoparticles indiscriminately throughout the world.
Come to think of it, though, that’s exactly what’s happening right now.