Greenpeace wades into nano debate with report that calls for caution

WASHINGTON, July 24, 2003 — Greenpeace today entered the debate over nanotech’s impact on the environment and society with a study that calls for the industry to “demonstrate a commitment to (environmental concerns) by funding the relevant research on a far greater scale than currently witnessed.”

The study was carried out for the Greenpeace Environmental Trust by the Imperial College London.

“Although an externally imposed nanotech moratorium seems both impractical and probably damaging at present, industry may find such a fate virtually self-imposed if they do not take the issue of public acceptance seriously,” the report states.

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Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, attacked the report as “industrial terrorism.”

“No wonder they are into it now. It’s a great way to raise new funds and pretend they care about something,” he said. “The reason these groups care about nanotechnology is because they view it as the next industrial revolution. And, to them, slowing it down, creating fear and upsetting people is their means of creating a choke point on the development of industry and technology. They saw how it worked on genetically modified foods, and so this is a great way for them to do the exact same thing.”

The 72-page report, published today in the magazine New Scientist, wades into a series of public disagreements that has grown increasingly prominent during the past year. Greenpeace explores the idea that “quantum dots, nanoparticles, and other throwaway nanodevices may constitute whole new classes of non-biodegradable pollutants that scientists have very little understanding of.”

The report also examines medical ethics, the “nano-divide,” “destructive uses” of nanotechnology and public acceptance of the technology. The report does not offer new scientific evidence to further develop any of the areas of interest, relying instead on previously published news stories, scientific studies and information gathered by organizations like the ETC Group, which last year called for a moratorium on nanotechnology manufacturing.

In general, the report asserts that research into societal implications of nanotechnology is lagging far behind scientific research and the rollout of commercial products. Government and industry, it concludes, must do much more to stay on top of the environmental, medical and ethical challenges posed by nanotechnology.

Gina Sanchez, a spokeswoman in Greenpeace’s Netherlands headquarters, said the organization has to date not been active in nanotechnology. She was aware of the report, which was being released from the organization’s United Kingdom office, but she could not comment further. Greenpeace spokespeople in the United Kingdom could not be reached for comment.

The ETC Group is “very glad” about Greenpeace’s interest in nanotechnology, said Executive Director Pat Mooney.

Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace and author of the report’s foreword, wrote that in early 2002, Greenpeace and New Scientist held a series of debates on the impact of new technologies, including nanotech, but found that few experts could identify initial products and their social and environmental consequences. That lack of an overview prompted Greenpeace to commission the review released today.

The document concludes, though, that because nanotech and artificial intelligence (another topic addressed in the same report) cover many different industries, no decisive conclusion can be reached.

It recommends that a more-in-depth analysis of environmental concerns be conducted. “This is because public acceptability of such risk is likely to vary considerably in relation to the application being considered,” the report said. “For example, the application of nanotechnology to computerization is less likely to cause concern than those practices which might lead to the release of nanoparticles into the environment.” The report also concedes that “it is possible to conceive of a number of environmental goods that may arise,” particularly in energy generation.

Debates about whether nanotechnology could be harmful to the environment or human health, or whether the technology raises new ethical dilemmas, have recently captured the interest of the media, some lawmakers, federal officials, industry and a smattering of environmental groups.

“It’s typical of Greenpeace to try to throw sand in the gears of a promising innovation like nano that is really just getting off the ground,” said Rob Atkinson, director of the New Technology Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, which is part of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “It’s way too early to begin having these kinds of discussions.”

Had Greenpeace existed in 1900, Atkinson said, it would have been “picketing Edison’s lab in Menlo Park and trying to pass regulations banning the use of lightbulbs in people’s homes.”

Lawmakers in Washington have wrestled with these issues during hearings on the proposed 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, a bill that both houses of Congress are expected to pass this year. Both versions of the bill call for setting aside millions of dollars to study these issues, and to establish a center, probably affiliated with a university, that is dedicated to exploring them.

Heidi Tringe, a spokeswoman for Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and chairman of the House Committee on Science, said that on “issues like this there will always be people at the extreme.”

“Chairman Boehlert wants to take a measured, moderate approach to this issue,” she said. “We want to support science and technology and simultaneously support closely linked studies of the impact of that technology, so when the time comes to move from research to practice, we can do it safely and responsibly.”

The topic has not entered the 2004 presidential campaign, although candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., campaigned Tuesday at Nanosys Inc., a nanotechnology company in California’s Silicon Valley.

Mooney said the ETC Group doesn’t plan to inject nanotechnology issues into the presidential campaign, unless the candidates themselves engage in nanotech promotion.

“They will draw attention to the controversy surrounding it,” he said. “I’d be willing to bet that if we get the candidates championing nanotechnology with an unabashed enthusiasm and not speaking about the need for studies, they will turn it into a campaign issue and it will get pretty hot.”


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