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Real Benefits, Real Risks
Fullerenes, better known as buckyballs, have been the darlings of chemists ever since they were discovered two decades ago. These novel molecules are, after all, a third major form of carbon, in addition to diamonds and graphite. Shaped like tiny geodesic domes, they also have an undeniable elegance. In recent years, they have emerged as one of the most valuable materials in the rapidly developing field of nanotechnology. But during the last year, preliminary toxicity studies on buckyballs have set off warnings about their potential health hazards.

Concern about buckyballs is part of a more general uncertainty about the safety of nanomaterials. The worry is that nanoparticles can, among other things, easily penetrate cells, producing unknown effects. Indeed, a few enlightened nanotechnologists, notably those at Rice University’s Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN), have for several years been calling for further research on the biological effects of nanomaterials. Given the potential dangers, it makes good business sense that Mitsubishi, which is investing heavily in the manufacturing of fullerenes, has been actively dealing with the issue, working closely with Japanese authorities (see “Mitsu­bishi: Out Front in Nano­tech”).

The problem is that Mitsubishi and Rice’s CBEN are the exceptions. The rest of the nanotech research community needs to recognize that toxicity questions are serious and cannot be ignored. No one knows what dangers may or may not exist. Expensive and time-consuming toxicity studies need to be done. Nanotechnology holds great promise: buckyballs are beginning to find uses in cancer drugs and solar cells, while other nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, are likely to be even more useful. But for nanotech to go ahead, the public must be confident about the safety of these materials.

Much depends on the public’s understanding the real dangers. Worries over swarming non-existent nanorobots are ridiculous; fears about the health risks of buckyballs are not necessarily misplaced. (Last spring, a study showed buckyballs can cause brain damage in fish.) Those outside the nanotech community also need a better sense of the potential value of the technology. Public opposition to genetically modified organisms took root largely because few could see any compelling advantage to biotech crops such as herbicide-resistant soybeans. The lesson is simple: if industry wants consumers to accept risks, however small, it must show the public some tan­gible, substantial benefits. The nanotech industry would be well advised to keep focused on applications, such as cancer drugs and solar power, whose eventual payoffs are obvious.

The U.S. government has begun to invest money in understanding the risks of nanomaterials. The 2004 budgets of federal agencies participating in the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative included $106 million for research on the health and environmental issues related to nanomaterials. That’s a good first step. But definitive answers about the toxicity of various nanomaterials could take years. The government must not wait; it must begin now to formulate appropriate regulations to ensure the safe handling and use of nanomaterials. The two industries in which fullerenes are likely to have the most significant impact, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, are among the nation’s most highly regulated sectors. And rightly so: the public wants safe drugs and protection from hazardous chemicals. Nanomaterials should be included in this regulatory framework.

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