The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental organization in which representatives of 30 industrialized countries in North America, Europe and the Asia and Pacific region, as well as the European Commission, meet to co-ordinate and harmonize policies, discuss issues of mutual concern, and work together to respond to international problems. Most of the OECD's work is carried out by more than 200 specialized committees and working groups composed of member country delegates. The OECD's Environment, Health and Safety Division has taken up the safety of nanomaterials as one of their priority issues. After several preliminary meetings in 2005 and 2006, the OECD's Chemical Committee set up a Working Party to address the health and environmental safety implications of manufactured nanomaterials (the WPMN). After a meeting in Berlin, Germany earlier this year, the WPMN has just released a document that compiles information provided by member countries and other delegations on current developments on the safety of manufactured nanomaterials in their countries or organizations and also on current activities related to nanotechnologies and nanomaterials in other International Organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The report makes clear that there are numerous projects and initiatives going on with regard to nanotechnology safety research. It would be nice at some point to see all these research results come together in one coherent and conclusive set of results as to where and what the risks are and how they will be controlled and managed.
Freshwater looks like it will become the oil of the 21st century - scarce, expensive and fought over. While over 70 per cent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, most of it is unusable for human consumption. According to the Government of Canada's Environment Department (take a look at their Freshwater Website - a great resource for facts and all kinds of aspects about water), freshwater lakes, rivers and underground aquifers represent only 2.5 per cent of the world's total freshwater supply. Unfortunately, in addition to being scarce, freshwater is also very unevenly distributed. The United Nations has compared water consumption with its availability and has predicted that by the middle of this century between 2 billion and 7 billion people will be faced with water scarcity. It gets worse: In the developing countries, 80 per cent of illnesses are water-related. Due to the shortage of safe drinking water in much of the world, there are 3.3 million deaths every year from diarrheal diseases caused by E. coli, salmonella and cholera bacterial infections, and from parasites and viral pathogens. In fact, between 1990 and 2000, more children died of diarrhea than all the people killed in armed conflicts since the Second World War. The use of nanotechnologies in four key water industry segments - monitoring, desalinization, purification and wastewater treatment - could play a large role in averting the coming water crisis. But hoping that the 'magic' of nanotechnology will solve all water problems is naive - the basic problems of accessibility to technologies, affordability, and fair distribution still need to be solved.
Having just re-read Richard Feynman's 20-year old autobiography titled Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) I thought it makes for a great little Nanowerk Spotlight leading into the weekend - and it won't be about nanotechnology. Feynman's 1959 lecture "Plenty of room at the bottom" is probably the most famous and most quoted physics speech ever and it is the one thing that most non-scientists associate with his name. Feynman, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work on on quantum electrodynamics, participated in the Manhattan Project and was a member of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. He taught physics, first at Cornell and later at the California Institute of Technology. In typical Feynman fashion, a major factor in his decision of chosing CalTech over other institutions was a desire to live in a mild climate, a goal he chose while having to put snow chains on his car's wheels in the middle of a snowstorm in Ithaca, New York. What makes this book such a gem is the weird and wacky collection of anecdotes that Feynman serves up when leading us through his childhood, education and career. Whether he learns how to pick locks and crack safes, plays the bongo drums in an orchestra, gets a commission to paint a naked female toreadore, or competes in a samba competition during Carnival in Rio, the book is not about physics, but the physicist. Underneath all these hilarious stories, though, are recurring leitmotifs of curiosity, tenacity, and total disrespect for ideas that have no grounding in science. For everyone who is quoting Feynman's speech, or who is reading it, this autobiography goes a long way explaining the unconventional mind behind his revolutionary ideas.
Following up on yesterday's Nanowerk Spotlight on nanobionics, today we'll look at bionics and other nanotechnology applications that could benefit disabled people. A range of applications and products with a combination of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology are under development to directly improve the lives of people with severe injuries or medical conditions. Solutions range from better implants and prosthetics to brain-machine interfaces and they already are in the early stages of development and have working prototypes. While these are technical solutions to medical issues, and also a potential path towards transhumanist dreams, there is a number of social issues surrounding them that are rarely discussed. For instance, some 180 million young people between the ages of 10-24 live with a physical, sensory, intellectual or mental health disability significant enough to make a difference in their daily lives. The vast majority of these young people, some 150 million (80%) live in the developing world. They have limited access to education, employment and basic health care, and generally experience profound economic and social exclusion. The question needs to be asked whether the nano- and biotechnologies discussed to help the developing world are designed in a way to take into account the specific needs and realities of disabled people. Even if they did - and they do not - the next question is whether all these wonderful new technologies are really affordable for developing countries, or in other words: who pays for them? And finally, does the right social framework exist to take advantage of them?
New technology, whether it is a novel cancer treatment or an innovative approach to farming, almost always comes with risk. Those risks are often first - and most severely - felt by industry workers, and nanotechnology is no different. Today, workers around the world are exposed to nanoparticles on a daily basis. There is much speculation, yet so far, little definitive information about how exposure affects workers. A report released by the International Council on Nanotechnology in November 2006, offers a clear picture of the situation. "The properties for which novel nanoscale materials are designed may generate new risks to workers, consumers, the public, and the environment. While some of these risks can be anticipated from experiences with other synthetic chemicals and with existing knowledge of ambient and manufactured fine particles, novel risks associated with new properties cannot easily be anticipated based on existing data." Questions, such as how to measure toxicity and how to monitor and control exposure, remain unanswered.
In 2005, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies released a report by Dr. J. Clarence Davies (Managing the effects of nanotechnology) that found that U.S. legislation was inadequate. Davies concluded that nanotechnology is difficult to address using existing regulations and a new regulatory framework was needed in order to take the unique properties and risks of nanomaterials into account. This was in somewhat contradiction to what the EU Commission had found after its preliminary risk assessment workshop in 2004. The European Commission concluded that the European Union could protect health and environment by using an incremental approach and adapt existing legislation. Although there are cultural and legal differences between the EU and U.S., some people had a hard time understanding how the conclusions of the two reports could be so different. Among them, a group of scientists in Denmark and Italy decided to take a very product-specific approach and analyze the existing legislation along the life-cycle of three different commercially available products containing nanomaterials. They conclude that the 'incremental approach' could work effectively, provided due explanations and amendments are taken where necessary.
Having written in this space about the (possibly) good and the (possibly) bad of food nanotechnology before, here is now a scientific approach to assessing how the public perceives nanotechnology in food and food packaging. Swiss social psychologist Michael Siegrist has looked into the issues of trust, risk and the public acceptance of nanotechnology before. Now, he and his colleagues have taken the area of nanofoods and tried to understand what factors influence the willingness to buy food that has been produced, processed or packaged with nanotechnology. Their conclusion: Perceived benefits seems to be the most important predictor for willingness to buy.
For centuries, man has searched for miracle cures to end suffering caused by disease and injury. Many researchers believe nanotechnology may be mankind's first "giant step" toward this goal. Whether these beliefs are based on facts or hope, many corporations and governments are willing to invest a great deal of money to find out what happens when nanotechnology is used for medical applications - the emerging field of nanomedicine. Hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars have been invested by governments, such as the U.S. National Cancer Institute, and the private sector in nanomedicine research and nanotech-related life sciences ventures. The 2008 budget of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative provides more than $200 million for the National Institutes of Health. The European Union, particularly Germany and the UK, and Japan are also investing heavily in this field. It is difficult to find fault with a technology that promises to cure cancer almost before it starts and prevent the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases. Scientists around the globe are searching for ways to exploit nanoparticles to improve human health. However, there are toxicological concerns and ethical issues that come with nanomedicine and they have to be addressed alongside the benefits.