Activists: No more nanomaterials
until we know whether it pollutes

Aug. 8, 2002 — An activist organization is calling for a moratorium on the manufacture of all nanomaterials until U.S. federal regulatory agencies have tested the products and concluded they won’t harm the environment.

Nanomaterials have not been properly assessed by federal regulators, charged the ETC Group, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The organization, which has largely focused on biotechnology for the past 20 years, recently published an eight-page critique called, “No Small Matter! Nanotech Particles Penetrate Living Cells and Accumulate in Animal Organs.”

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“We’ve been astonished at the swarm of people who have gone to pull down that document, from companies and regulatory agencies,” said Pat Mooney, executive director of the organization.

Ken Lyon, president of Altair Nanomaterials Inc. in Reno, Nev., said inquiries into health and environmental matters in nanotechnology are healthy and welcome. But, he said, the report’s premise is flawed because it isn’t grounded in science.

“Doing this using a scare method, without backing up the science, isn’t the way to get responsible results,” he said.

Altair is one of several companies the report singles out. The company uses titanium dioxide nanoparticles for applications in batteries and fuel cells.

Mooney said the European Parliament in Brussels has asked the ETC Group to give briefings on nanotechnology this fall. The Christian Democrat Party and the Green Party are particularly interested in airing nanotech issues, he said. The organization will be at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, Aug. 26-Sept. 4 to hold seminars on nanotechnology.

Interest in slowing down nanotechnology manufacturing is “moving much faster than biotechnology did,” he said. “We’ve gotten to the point that within five years, nanotechnology will be as much of an issue for environmental groups and others as biotechnology is today.”

He said the scientific community is responding in a similar fashion: “Everything is fine, there are no problems, this is the best thing since sliced bread,” he said. “It’s also an industry that, like biotechnology in the late 1970s and 1980s, was not well organized.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is, in fact, examining nanomaterials. The agency for the past two years has offered grants to researchers studying potential environmental problems associated with nanotechnology, as well as ways in which nanotechnology could be used to improve the environment. The agency has held workshops and expects to dedicate an increasingly larger chunk of its energy to nanoscience.

Mooney, however, said he believes the agency isn’t moving fast enough, or going far enough, in its scrutiny of nanomaterials manufacturing.

The ETC Group isn’t doing the environment any favors by trying to halt the manufacture of nanomaterials, said Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University. Researchers at the center were quoted in the ETC Group paper, but Ausman said the quotes were taken out of context and “put into a political agenda.”

“If the stance taken by environmental activists is that these things are being investigated and so we need to put a moratorium on applications, then that will convince scientists to not be proactive,” he said. “That’s not what the environmentalists want, that’s not what industry wants. That’s not what anybody wants. What we need to have is a side-by-side development of applications and investigations of environmental applications, one informing the other as they progress, coupled with science and social policy.”

Scientists at the Rice center are doing some of the only research into nanotechnology and the environment. They hope that by unearthing and addressing potential environmental problems as they arise, the nanotechnology industry won’t stumble as dramatically as the biotechnology industry did, especially in agribusiness.

Ausman largely dismissed the ETC Group’s paper as being unhinged from science and lacking rigor. He said the paper makes a major “leap in logic” when it concludes that because nanomaterials have unique properties, they will therefore have unique “interactions with biological systems that could be negative.”

“Yes nanomaterials are very different from other materials, but that determines things like optical properties or electronic properties,” Ausman said. “There is not necessarily a direct connection between those properties and biological activity.”

Nanomaterials are defined by size, instead of chemistry or biological activity, he said. For now, researchers don’t know which nanomaterials are going to be prominent in applications. If the research community is forced to wait for environmental implication studies to take place before applications are developed, then applications will never get off the ground, he said.

The paper does mark an early salvo from an environmental group working to thwart nanotechnology manufacturing. Ausman said he expects more.

“I’m not incredibly worried about this yet, about having Greenpeace coming down on us, because we don’t have large-scale applications yet,” he said.

“Once the science has reached that point, and once the applications are developed to make it worth it economically, at that point I think we’ll be hearing a lot more from whatever environmental activist groups that are out there. Our goal for the center is to be ready, as those applications are developed, to be able to answer those questions.”


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