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Nanotech's health, environmental impacts worry scientists and the public

BOSTON Scientists and the public agree that the promise of nanotechnology is great, but there are risks to it and they should be governed accordingly.

The new technology, which is making its way into products ranging from food storage containers to computers, is seen differently among scientists than the general public, with scientists appearing to be more concerned in some areas. But in broad categories of risk versus reward both groups seem to agree go slow and be cautious of the technologys deleterious effects. What may be most useful in the future are good, trusted communicators.

These are among the findings of a recent survey that will be presented by Elizabeth Corley, an Arizona State University assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs, on Feb. 15 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

The report is based on a national telephone survey of American households and a sampling of 363 leading U.S. nanotechnology scientists and engineers. It reveals that scientists who have the most insight into a technology with enormous potential -- and that is already emerging in hundreds of products -- are unsure what health and environmental problems might be posed by the technology.

Findings of the report, first published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology (Nov. 25, 2007), were in stark contrast to controversies sparked by the advent of major past technologies, such as nuclear power and genetically modified foods, which scientists perceived as having lower risks than did the public.

Nanotechnology is based on sciences newfound ability to manipulate matter at the smallest scale, on the order of molecules and atoms. The field has enormous potential to develop applications ranging from new antimicrobial materials and tiny probes to sample individual cells in human patients, to vastly more powerful computers and lasers. Already, products with nanotechnology built in include golf clubs, tennis rackets and antimicrobial food storage containers.

At the root of the information disconnect, said Corley, who conducted the survey with Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is that nanotechnology is only now starting to emerge on the nations policy agenda. Amplifying the problem is that the news media have not paid much attention to nanotechnology and its implications.

In the long run, this information disconnect could undermine public support for federal funding in certain areas of nanotechnology research, particularly in those areas that the public views as having lower levels of risk, Corley said.

While scientists were generally optimistic about the potential benefits of nanotechnology, they expressed significantly more concern about pollution and new health problems related to the technology. Twenty percent of the scientists responding to the survey indicated a concern that new forms of nanotechnology pollution may emerge, while only 15 percent of the public thought that might be a problem. More than 30 percent of scientists expressed concern that human health may be at risk from the technology, while just 20 percent of the public held such fears.

Of more concern to the American public, according to the report, are a potential loss of privacy from tiny new surveillance devices and the loss of more U.S jobs. Those fears were less of a concern for scientists.

While divergent in some specific views, Corley said that scientists and the public seem to agree in broad terms on the rewards versus the risks of nanotech.

Not surprisingly, scientists are more likely than the public to find nanotechnology research useful and morally acceptable, Corley said. Yet, scientists and the public have similar perceptions (around 17 percent) of the overall risks of nanotechnology and the need for government regulations of nanotechnology (around 40 percent).

Our new analysis shows that despite scientists perceptions of high levels of benefit from nanotechnology research, they tend to agree with the public that they should pay attention to government regulations and unknown risks, she explained.

Corley added that the survey shows university scientists are the ones thought to be most qualified to communicate the potential risks and benefits of the technology. Some 88 percent of scientists believe university scientists have the necessary expertise, while about 75 percent think that nanotech industry scientists have the required level of expertise. Yet the public is less likely to trust nanotech industry scientists. Of the three groups that the public trusts most -- university scientists, consumer organizations and regulators the only group that more than half the public trusts are university scientists.

This is a policy relevant finding, she added, because, on average, university nanotech scientists have been hesitant to engage the public in this sort of discourse.


Contact: Skip Derra
Arizona State University

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