Controversy Surrounds 'Nano' Matter
By Cristina Hernández*
Canadian scientists warn that a moratorium on nanotechnology could create a disparity much like the digital divide that separates rich countries from poor.
SAN FRANCISCO, United States - Equipped with a half-century of theoretical wealth, scientists from around the world are developing nanotechnology: the manipulation of matter on a scale equivalent to one-millionth of a millimeter.
The campaign in favor of a moratorium on nanotechnology research has been underway since 2002 with the backing of Britain's Prince Charles, with the argument that too little is known about the safety of its products.
But scientists at Canada's University of Toronto warn that the moratorium could prevent developing countries from benefiting from the technology's many benefits.
In a report published in the Jan. 27 edition of the British journal Nanotechnology, the experts enumerate the advantages of this branch of science, including greater efficiency in diagnosing diseases like AIDS, cancer and tuberculosis, monitoring crop and soil toxicity levels, and purifying water.
"While there are legitimate risks that need to be managed, an exclusive focus on the risks will create another divide --the nano-divide-- similar to the digital and genomics divides between industrialized and developing countries," says Peter Singer, director of the Joint Center for Bioethics (JCB) at the University of Toronto.
Abdallah S. Daar, also of the JCB, told Tierramérica that the moratorium has received a great deal of media coverage because it has the support of Prince Charles, and they send the message that nanotechnology is extremely risky for the environment and human health, without mentioning its benefits.
The critics' discourse lacks balance, he said.
Through nanotechnology, also known as transformative technology, the atoms of an element might be relocated in order to alter its properties or to create something that does not exist in nature.
The theory about phenomena at that scale has been developing over the past several decades, but the availability of instruments to conduct experiments is recent.
Nano research could promote an industry that would mobilize around a billion dollars by 2015, according to the U.S.-based National Science Foundation.
The Canadian Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), which has contributed to the effort to halt introduction of genetically modified products in Europe and Africa, is heading an initiative for a moratorium on nanotechnology development.
In 2002 the ETC Group issued an appeal for a halt to nanotechnology, "once we learned there weren't even agreed on safety protocols" for working with the related material in laboratories, said the group's director Pat Mooney.
The organization condemns the fact that some nano-products are marketed without first conducting studies on their health and environmental impacts.
The most commercially successful nanotechnology products, says ETC, are stain-resistant fabrics, strong but lightweight tennis rackets, and sunblocks.
Also in the works are products to prevent soil erosion and to prevent filtration of toxic substances into groundwater.
Mooney said nanotechnology is developing rapidly but with little awareness or knowledge of its impacts, especially in developing countries.
But Daar says it is essential to support nanotechnology initiatives in developing countries, whose efforts should be focused on identifying niche markets, which could be a source of revenue for them within a decade.
These countries must be part of the debate, otherwise a new gap will be created, similar to the digital divide, between rich and poor countries, said Daar.
According to the University of Toronto study, South Korea, China and India are most advanced in terms of nanotechnology, in areas of state financing, patents, commercial products and research institutes.
In Latin America, there are four countries vying for leadership in this area. Brazil and Chile are moving forward with national programs that have government backing, while Mexico and Argentina are limited to research groups financed by scientific research institutes.
* Cristina Hernández is a Tierramérica contributor