Nano-morals

Today, Salvi and Kimbrell ponder nanotechnology's broader implications for society. Previously, they defined the scope of nanotechnology, discussed its potential drawbacks, predicted its future and weighed government oversight of research and business.

The immorality of not pursuing nanotechnologyBy Aatish Salvi
Nanotechnology itself is neither ethical nor unethical. The technology itself is value-neutral — it is what we do or don't do with it that can be evaluated. I believe that the technologist's ethic is to actively seek the improvement of mankind through science and to minimize the harmful effect of technology on the world. When discussing the ethics of nanotechnology, it is not uncommon hear that nanotechnology's abilities are "hyped" and then have its most extreme possible applications used to construct ethical crises. I will attempt to avoid that trap by considering current applications or those that can modestly be expected to arise in the next two to three years.

Our world today is far from perfect. We are experiencing massive crises in the availability of clean water, energy and healthcare. More than 4,500 children die each day, and 80% of the developing world's illnesses are a direct consequence of not having access to water. The United States consumes 20 million of barrels of oil each day — more than 25% of the world's total. This insatiable consumption and dependence on oil has arguably sparked conflicts that are costing America trillions of dollars, has massively affected our quality of life and has threatened significant climate change. Cancer results in millions of deaths globally every year and costs billions of dollars to treat.

A rarely considered perspective is the ethical implication of not using nanotechnology to address these tremendous challenges. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified nanotech as one of the most promising technologies for water desalination and purification. Crystal Clear Technologies uses nanoscale titanium dioxide to absorb toxic metals from drinking water eight times more efficiently than other methods available. That company has a goal of making drinking water available for $1 per person per year. As I mentioned in a previous post, solar cells produced in roll-to-roll processes with efficiencies approaching 15% to 20% will make solar energy much more viable. Perhaps more important, they will bring energy to less developed nations that lack electrical grids. The Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, established by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, have resulted in the most promising cancer breakthroughs over the last year. Companies such as Nanosphere and CombiMatrix are working on diagnostic tools that are capable of accurately detecting very faint protein signatures in blood. Because cancers tend to cause anomalies in the protein content of blood, these methods can be used to detect them earlier so that they will be highly treatable.

It's true that in the U.S., the effects of most of these issues are blunted. We don't have millions who die from not having access to water; our military and economic might allow us to continue having access to a disproportionate amount of the world's oil; and cancer sufferers in the U.S. have access to much better care than those in developing countries. We are, however, the country that leads in the development of solutions to these problems. I feel we have an ethical obligation to pursue this research and to let ourselves be driven by the sense of urgency that those dying in developing nations feel. Not doing so is to condone or ignore the death and hardship around us.

Let's now look at the risk we would be taking if we pursued this technology. Each of us has been exposed to nanomaterials our entire lives. Emissions from cars, asphalt, sea salt and other sources generate incidental nanoparticles whose properties are not controlled or engineered. All of the research done to date by the EPA and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has not lead to the conclusion that nanotechnology poses an acute threat. Being able to engineer materials means we can blunt any potential hazard as we design them. There is no doubt that we must be careful as we continue developing nanomaterials. Industry needs to support and work hand in glove with the regulatory agencies to make sure that consumers and workers are safe. We need to use workplace safety measures and test our products. I will make a bold statement: We have never had as much dialogue, agency and industry involvement and public participation in the safety issues surrounding a new technology as we have with nanotech. The risks of pursuing nanotechnology are being actively and aggressively dealt with.

In keeping with the ethical test with which I began — that nanotech has the potential to greatly alleviate the suffering of mankind and presents a controllable and bounded risk — I think the responsible pursuit of this technology is therefore an ethical imperative. A recent study by Arizona State University claimed that a majority of Americans found nanotechnology "morally unacceptable." A study by the Woodrow Wilson Center found that 42% of Americans have no awareness of the technology at all. It's no surprise then that so many people find a technology they do not understand to be morally alarming. Given how much we as a country invest in nanotech, we need to be doing a better job of explaining it to people. I want to thank The Times and George Kimbrell for this debate and hope that the posts written by George and myself over the last few days have done precisely that.

Aatish Salvi is vice president of the NanoBusiness Alliance.


Humans shouldn't be guinea pigsBy George A. Kimbrell
I also want to thank The Times for this opportunity and Aatish Salvi for this dialogue.

One current ethical problem is a lack of informed consent. The absence of long-term studies on nanomaterials despite widespread commercialization makes humans unknowing research subjects. This violates a basic ethical principle of research. Likewise, the lack of labeling for nanomaterials denies the public of the basic ethical right to know. Another basic requirement of most ethical systems is to look at individuals not as a means, but rather as an end in themselves. By denying people any right not to purchase nanomaterials hidden in consumer products, government and industry are effectively asserting that humans are just a market, not individuals able to make their own choices.

Nanotechnology risk assessment should include attention to basic ethical principles. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has convened ethics panels on many issues, and it is past time for such an exhaustive review of the ethics of nanotechnologies. Such an assessment is especially needed as nanotechnologies are being employed in genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Rigorous ethical analysis could help us decide which technologies to pursue and which should be relinquished.

Moreover, the anticipated next generations of nanotechnologies, including the production of more sophisticated nanodevices for manufacturing, military or medical use — including enhancement of human performance — can be expected to pose complex risks as well as social and ethical challenges. Some laboratories are already engineering viruses, yeasts and bacteria to make nanomaterials. Full public debate on all these issues will be crucial.

As we have seen over the course of this dialogue, proponents of nanotech want it both ways. For funding, advertising and patenting purposes, they rely on the fundamentally new and exciting properties and possibilities that nanotech provides. However, when it comes to potential risks or regulation, they claim that nanotech is nothing new. The same fundamental logical contradiction exists with ethical considerations. Proponents rely on the promise or hype of nanotech to potentially alleviate problems such as water shortages and cancer. Yet they don't want to discuss the implications of the "nanoization" of our world and the extremely difficult ethical questions that arise.

Aatish raises global problems like lack of clean water as an example of the potential "good" nanotech could do. As we discussed Wednesday, history belies this argument. Technologists tend to have amnesia about the fact that new technologies do not solve existing problems so much as create new, unforeseen problems that are worse. We need look no further than global climate change for an example.

Nanotech may help alleviate the problems Aatish mentions, but it is not the only possible solution. Too often we want to treat the symptoms, not the problem. It is important to ask why the water is so polluted in many countries. What is needed is basic sanitation. Stopping neo-colonialism and pollution of waterways, and eliminating the chemical toxic soup of current industrial systems would be a good start. Bangladeshi professor Fakhrul Islam invented a water filter that costs only $3 (total, not per person as with the Crystal Clear filter) and can effectively filter arsenic out of water. The filter uses a mixture of crushed bricks and ferrous sulfate. In tests by the United Nations, using the filter leads to a 20-fold decrease in the amount of arsenic in water. We need to be careful that we don't ignore cheaper techniques because a nanotech company has a product looking for a market.

There is yet another gaping hole in Aatish's "public good" argument: Nanotech is a privatized technology in which the very basic building blocks are patented and privately owned. Imagine if the periodic table were patented; that is the situation with nanotech. As a result, only the most profitable corporate endeavors will come to fruition. No doubt this will mean exorbitant profits for those who own the rights to these materials; it does not bode well for any public-good uses, however. Moreover, the ethical effects of patents for fundamental nanomaterials, which may amount to privatizing the building blocks of the natural world, must be considered and addressed.

Aatish's reliance on the existence of natural and accidentally created nanoparticles is a superficial and misleading attempt to downplay the risks of manufactured and engineered nanomaterials. Once again, the implication is that these new materials and this technology, when it comes to risk, are nothing new or different. If that is the case, why are corporations and governments spending billions of dollars on them annually? It is only recently that scientists have developed the techniques for synthesizing and characterizing nanomaterials. To be sure, nanomaterials now in development and manufacturing are different from anything that exists in nature. Indeed, the very reason that nanotechnology is hyped so heavily is because it allows people to create and manipulate materials that do things natural substances cannot.

Aatish also notes that agencies have not yet found specific evidence of hazard and are "actively" or "aggressively" pursuing risks. This kind of argument is unethical on its face. As we discussed on Monday, it's unnecessarily difficult to find evidence of hazard or ensure safety when we are spending a tiny percentage of the massive funding for nanotech on risk research. We also have a fundamental disagreement on this point, as I don't think that lack of data or evidence of specific harm should substitute for a reasonable certainty of safety, particularly with a fundamentally new and different technology for which we know nothing about the long-term effects.

Finally, Aatish claims that nanotech research has included much "dialogue." It is true that our regulatory agencies have been all too happy to hold meetings, but they fail to actually take any action to protect the public. Participation must be meaningful, which means it must proceed and inform policymakers rather than come after widespread commercialization has made the public into guinea pigs.

George A. Kimbrell is staff attorney for the International Center for Technology Assessment, where he works on legal and policy issues related to nanotechnology, biotechnology and climate-change technologies.

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