David Rotman

A View from David Rotman

Nanotech Dilemma

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

  • May 19, 2006

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?

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

You've read of free articles this month.