(NHI Nanoblog) As U.S. and international regulators struggle to create a way to regulate the rapidly growing field of nanotechnology, lots has been made of what’s not going to work—such as treating nanomaterials as self-contained entities like chemicals.
There are also plenty of ideas, some of them already discussed in this space, about new templates for regulation and control. But what can we learn from (relatively recent) history—namely, the record of trying to regulate biotechnology? It’s another emerging technology, and it also involves stuff, like plants and fish, that we eat and interact with on a daily basis.
Nanotechnology—the rapidly growing science that creates products from handbags to air purifiers by harnessing the super-properties of materials at super-tiny levels—uses materials that we already know about, such as carbon, gold and titanium dioxide.
But just as genetically-modified seeds are different from the originals, the changes that take place when a substance is shrunk to the nanoscale can be major.
Jennifer Kuzma, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, has been thinking about both nanotechnology and biotechnology for several years. She’s co-authored a new paper looking at parallels between the two fields.
In an interview, Kuzma said cited several similarities: each is governed by an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies, and often, the materials involve things that the public can’t really see—or wrap their brains around.
But there are some key differences, too, she said, including an important one: Most genetically-engineered products were approved in some way before hitting the market. With nanotechnology, the system has been more reactive. A real regulatory framework could take decades, she said.
“With genetic engineering, we’re still tweaking that framework and trying to get out arms around it,” Kuzma said. “We still don’t know what we’re going to do with genertically engineered insects, for example, and we’re still trying to figure out what to do with genetically engineered fish.”
Some of the issues are practical, because some nano-based products, like some genetically-engineered materials, might fall between the cracks of the jurisdiction of regulatory agencies. Plus, those agencies aren’t well-equipped to start and maintain conversations among themselves. Other hurdles, though, are societal and political, Kuzma said: the public literally can’t see what’s going on, and the general climate isn’t exactly friendly to increased government interference.
Unlike oil or toxic waste, damage from nanomaterials is likely to happen over a long period. For example, if nanosilver—which, studies show, can leach out of fabrics and into water—were to harm the water supply, it would take many years.
“It’s not going to be like the oil spill, and they’re not going to have people dropping dead on the street,” Kuzma said. “So it’s going to be these sub-lethal kind of chronic environmental and health effects that we’re not good at detecting and we’re not good at dealing with.”
The government has actually been more pro-active, she said, in attempting to educate the public about nanotechnology, through grants to science museums and research. But most of that has focused on the amazing things that nanomaterials can do, from making better tennis rackets to improving cancer treatments, rather than the potential risks.
It’s unclear, she said, whether it’s even a good idea to regulate “nanotechnology,” given the difficulty of narrowing the huge field down to a single common trait (other than size). Perhaps, Kuzma mused, we would be better off looking at emerging technologies—from nanomaterials to whatever else crops up at the cutting edge over the next decades—as a category on its own.
Either way, she said, it’s a priority to find ways to use past experiences, positive and negative, to inform the present.
“Whenever we face a new or emerging technology, we’re stuck with what the heck to do about it,” Kuzma said. “And really, the only power or thing we have to turn to is history, and how well we can learn from it in order to move forward.”