Small Things Big Risks

Nanotechnology is one of the most popular areas of scientific research, especially with regard to medical applications. Nanotechnology involves manipulating atoms to make things that are smaller than one one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair. At that size, some conventional materials exhibit unconventional physical and chemical properties, making them valuable for a wide variety of products. Today, nanomaterials are being used in computers, cosmetics, stain-resistant fabrics, sports equipment, paints and medical diagnostic tests. Scientists also hope to use nanomaterials to help clean up polluted sites.

However, in the ongoing controversy on the implications of nanotechnology, there is significant debate concerning whether nanotechnology or nanotechnology-based products merit special government regulation. In the article “Stricter Nanotechnology Laws Are Urged”, Rick Weiss discusses an independent report that suggests that current U.S. laws and regulations cannot adequately protect the public against the risks of nanotechnology.

Weiss looks at the Toxic Substances Control Act in making the argument for better laws to ensure the safety of the public in general. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), manufacturers are required to tell the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about new chemicals they want to market and the law gives the agency the authority to restrict those that pose undue risks. But under TSCA’s “low volume” clause, chemicals made in quantities of 11 tons or less are largely exempt. This seems reasonable for conventional chemicals, however, given the extreme chemical re-activity of nanomaterial, the mere fact that relatively small quantities are being made is hardly an assurance of safety.

Weiss’s  argument that the current laws are not sufficient brings about the question of what do we value more? Safety or Progress?



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