Scientists fear nanotech threatens health and environment

Call for federally funded research to examine findings

Scientists are more concerned than the average American about potential health and environmental problems associated with nanotechnology, according to a new survey.

The concerns of the scientific community are expected to push it to call for more federally funded research to examine such threats over the next five years, according to Elizabeth Corley, an assistant professor at Arizona State University and a co-author of the study.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we saw an increase in the next five years of federally funded research that focuses on exploring the human health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology," said Corley. "If that happens, then this shift in research focus would probably lead to the development of commercial products that can mitigate the negative impacts of nanotechnology. There is an opportunity for scientists to communicate with the public about their concerns regarding the use of nanoparticles in commercial products."

Nanotechnology is generally seen as technological development at the molecular or atomic level. The dimensions range from 1 to 100 nanometers; a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.

For instance, other researchers at Arizona State are working on ways to store data on nanowires, which eventually would lead to the obsolescence of the magnetic disk drives in iPods, laptops and servers. Another researcher, at the University of Edinburgh School of Engineering and Electronics, is trying to use similar nanowires to make supercomputers small enough to fit into the palm of your hand.

The survey of American households and 363 US nanotechnology scientists and engineers found that while scientists are optimistic about the benefits that nanotechnology could bring to society, they're also "significantly" worried about pollution and unspecified health problems that the technology could bring. Health problems, in fact, were the scientists' biggest concern about the technology, reported Corley, who teamed up on the survey with Dietram Scheufele, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

About 20% of the scientists surveyed are concerned that new forms of nanotechnology pollution may emerge -- whereas only 15% of the public thought that might be a problem. And more than 30% of scientists said they are worried that people's health may be at risk because of the technology, compared with 20% of nonscientists.

"There are a couple of reasons for the information disconnect between scientists and the public," said Corley, noting that researchers are not communicating well about the benefits and risks associated with nanotechnology. "We have not seen extensive discussions about the moral and social implications of nanotechnology research yet.

"Another cause of the information disconnect is the fact that the issue of nanotechnology is just beginning to emerge on the policy agenda, so these issues are just beginning to show up in the media," she said. "It is difficult for the public to envision all of the far-reaching applications -- and associated risks -- of nanotechnology."

What is the general public's biggest concern about nanotechnology?

American citizens polled for the study reported being primarily worried that tiny surveillance devices could erode their privacy.

"The results of our study indicate that we need more scientific information about the potential risks of nanotechnology," Corley said. "I think that it will be important to continue this investment in continuing the science, but I think it's also important that scientists take this opportunity to engage the public in a discussion about the moral and social implications of nanotechnology."

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld

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