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Nanotech Dilemma

The public needs to know the benefits as well as the risks.

Readers will notice an interesting juxtaposition in today’s three stories. The lead article explores the toxicity questions raised by the use of nanomaterials in consumer products, such as sunscreens and cosmetics, in which ultrafine particles are incorporated into the formulations. The other two articles look at a completely different face of nanotechnology: one explores the use of nano-structured materials to improve batteries, and the third one looks at research into using carbon nanotubes for neural prosthetics, including artificial retinas as an aid to those suffering from the devastating effects of macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly.

So, there you have it: the dilemma facing the nanotech community. Legitimate concerns over the use of nanoparticles in sunscreens could, at least in the public mind, overwhelm efforts to use carbon nanotubes to restore sight or to make a more practical hybrid car.

The debate over the safety of nanotechnology is often compared to the one over biotech foods and crops. Although the comparison doesn’t always hold up, the biotech controversy does provide a useful lesson. One of the initial products of the so-called ag biotech industry was a recombinant form of bovine somatotropin (rBST) that Monsanto introduced to increase milk production in cows. The problem, from a public perspective, was that milk was already cheap and there was no great need to increase production – and who wanted another hormone in their milk? In the aftermath of the rBST debate, Monsanto never regained its credibility as it rolled out more ag biotech products.

The nanotech community should pay attention. It’s not that the public can’t understand or deal with the risks of a new technology like nanotechnology. But they do need to know what are the benefits. Do nanotech cosmetics really provide the kinds of benefits that outweigh the risks?

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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