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Posted: August 28, 2009
Nanotechnology and the environment: Claims and reality don't match
(Nanowerk News) “Nanotechnologies are presented as providing unprecedented technological solutions,” yet “serous environmental risks and costs are being trivialised or ignored,” the International Persistant Organic Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) argues in a new paper (pdf download, 120 KB).
A paper from the network’s Nanotechnology Working Group (NWG) evaluating the environmental, economic and health impacts of nanotechnology, recalls that the OECD suggests that nanotechnology offers environmental benefits. But this assertion is "not borne out by reality and environmental claims are consistently ignored," it states.
The brief advises that contrary to claims such as "nanotechnology will deliver cleaner production" and "reduce consumption of raw materials and natural resources such as water and energy," nanomaterial production in fact needs "large amounts of water and energy [and] the chemicals required are often highly toxic". 'Safety by design' is "an illusion", since there is no "proper" life cycle analysis of nanomaterials, it further asserts.
Regarding its the broader environmental benefits and costs of nanotechnology, the NWG admits that it has the potential "to deliver useful water treatment in some areas," yet there is still a risk that other effective water treatment methods will be "sidelined as priority is given to patented, corporate-controlled nano-water treatment applications".
Another point on which the brief claims to defeat proponents of nanotechnology is the energy and resource requirements for making nanomaterials. It points to a 2008 study by Sengül, which found that nanomaterial production has an "unexpectedly large ecological footprint" and is "extremely energy-intensive".
The NWG makes more disturbing claims that "nanomaterials themselves constitute a new generation of toxic chemicals" and some now in commercial production "can damage human DNA". Other health concerns include the purported "asbestos-like health risks" posed by carbon nanotubes, which are already included in designs for super-capacitors, batteries and light-weight super parts for planes and cars.
Nanotechnologies can be used to make materials which are lighter and stronger than conventional ones, translating into "clear fuel efficiency gains in cars and planes".
Nevertheless, the disadvantages of nanotubes tend to stand out more, believes the NWG. It reports that nanotubes "diminish rice yields and make wheat more vulnerable to other pollutants". In addition, nanotube "water filtration technologies largely perform similar functions to current technologies, but remove community control," as they are almost always patented and technologically complicated.
The paper embraces the precautionary principle for nanotechnology, emphasising that it currently "goes beyond our knowledge of natural systems and cycles, and our ability to monitor or control unintended negative effects".
It concludes that "better governance of technological innovations is fundamental," as "technology must operate in the service of society, which means that it needs to be controlled and guided by societal structures".