It turns out that size really does matter. Or to be more precise, it's the size of matter that matters.
Scientists are manipulating matter at the 'nano' scale (one billionth of a metre) and finding that common materials are capable of assuming radically different properties. Nano-scale materials may be more reactive, have different optical, magnetic and electric properties, and be much stronger or more toxic than their larger scale counterparts.
'Nanotechnology' is being heralded as the next industrial revolution, redefining life as we know it. But who asked for their life to be redefined? I certainly didn't. Did you?
But it's not as though the industry is waiting for the nod of public approval. The launching pad of the global nanotechnology industry is being built, with around 3,000 new nanopatents a year. In the US, nanotechnology projects have attracted more than US$800 million in public funds (mostly for military applications), making it the largest research project since the Apollo moon landing. Globally, nanotech is estimated to become a US$1 trillion industry by 2011.
In one of the first high-profile examples of nanotechnology, IBM spelled out their corporate logo using xenon atoms to make letters that were five nanometres high. To put this in context, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometres wide and a red blood cell roughly 7,000 nanometres wide. So we're talking very, very small.
The exact definition of nanotechnology shifts depending on who you are speaking to - or more importantly, what questions you are asking. If you're an investor looking for opportunities, or a researcher looking for corporate backing, then nanotechnology is the most exciting area of cutting edge science that is going to be the basis of the next industrial revolution and will redefine both life and non-life as we know it.
If, on the other hand, you happen to be asking whether there needs to be some regulation of the health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology, then you're likely to be told that nanotechnology doesn't actually exist. After all, it's really just the same old physics and chemistry that we've been doing for decades, 'rebranded' to help boost science funding.
Surely the nanotechnology industry can't have it both ways. Or can it? As was the case with genetically engineered organisms, the nanotechnology industry and scientists have managed to successfully argue that nano-materials are new and different, in order to secure monopoly patents. They have then turned around and argued that the materials are in fact the same everyday stuff we've been using for decades, so they don't need regulation or safety testing. To date, no regulation has been put in place, despite considerable evidence that manufactured nanoparticles can be hazardous and warrant extreme caution.
There is a wide range of concerns with nanotechnology, backed by a growing body of scientific evidence. The fact that nano-scaled substances have much higher and less predictable reactivities increases their chances of becoming environmental toxins by enabling them to bind to molecules more readily and accumulate in organisms at high rates.
The health impacts of nanoparticles are also starting to raise alarm bells. Substances under 70 nanometres are not recognisable to our bodies' first line of defense (white blood cells), and therefore pass readily into the bloodstream and consequently to all other parts of the body when inhaled. Researchers working in Oxford and Montreal found that titanium dioxide nanoparticles (for use in sunscreens) catalyse the formation of free radicals in skin cells, which in turn cause damage to DNA, ultimately becoming carcinogenic. Ironically, it's possible that in our attempt to prevent skin cancer from excessive sun exposure, we are actually causing cancer through the use of sunscreen.
In response to concerns over health and environmental safety, the Royal Society in the United Kingdom released a report in 2004 with a series of wide ranging recommendations, including: until more is known about the environmental impacts of nanoparticles and nanotubes, their release into the environment should be avoided as far as possible; and that ingredients in the form of nanoparticles undergo a full safety assessment before they are permitted for use in products.
The problem is that nobody is listening. Products containing nanoparticles are already on the shelves, and include sunscreens, cosmetics, car parts and silicon chips. In the not too distant future we can expect this list to include food and pharmaceutical products.
There is an urgent and growing regulatory gap, where product development is being fast-tracked at the expense of community health and safety. But it is unclear what it's going to take to trigger a regulatory response. Recommendations from the Royal Society, one of the world's most conservative and well-respected scientific bodies haven't had much of an impact. Perhaps the nanotechnology industry is waiting for the same kind of public backlash that triggered the regulation of genetically engineered foods.?
Beyond the immediate health and environmental risks, the more complex and far-reaching implications of nanotechnology are a little further up the development pipeline - such as molecular manufacturing techniques for putting together products atom-by-atom, the merging of non-living nano-materials and living organisms, and even self-replicating nano-robots. These technologies raise serious social, ethical and political questions. The transformative power of the new nano- and biotechnologies signals that it is time for us to take the democratisation of science seriously. Over the past 200 years, scientists have altered our world as much, if not more, than elected officials. Yet they are accountable to nobody. We need a new way of thinking about science and technology that allows those who are affected by the technology to have a say in its development, and which allows the development of technology to be shaped by the needs and aspirations of the community - not the other way around.
This is not a trivial problem by any means. Just as scientists are exploring uncharted territory through the emerging nano- and biotechnologies, so must we also explore uncharted territory in terms of how these technologies are managed - and crucially, in whose interests.
John Hepburn works with Greenpeace International on issues of technology and agriculture.