The European nanotechnology industry needs to discuss its work with the public or face a backlash against it. That was the general view of speakers in a panel discussion about the ethical and regulatory issues surrounding nanotechnology at the World Nano-Economic Congress, Europe, in London on Tuesday.
The industry must deal with the "huge public crisis of confidence in the science community," said Tom Wakeford, a research fellow with PEALS, the Politics, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Institute based at the University of Newcastle, England.
Wakeford was participating in a panel discussion on the ethical and regulatory issues surrounding nanotechnology at the conference.
"Ask yourself -- at what point did the GM (genetically modified food) debate move from intractable to broader acceptance? I think it was after the (U.K.) government realized it needed a wider societal debate. The industry needs to address the issue, and think how it can give non-scientists a way to interact with the science community. Otherwise nanotech will get the same bumpy ride as GM did," Wakeford said.
There is a need to talk about the wider implications of nanotechnology, its impacts on society, employment and the world economy, said Pat Mooney, executive director of conservation organization the ETC Group (formerly Rural Advancement Foundation International).
"We have one to two years to avoid ending up in the GM situation," Mooney said "People are very hesitant after GM, and we need to signal that this will be different. So far we've gone down almost exactly the same road, with name calling, scaremongering and paranoia," he said.
The scaremongering isn't altogether misplaced, according to Vyvyan Howard, of the University of Liverpool, England's departmental toxicopathology group. Ultra-fine nanoparticles, when tested on animals, caused acute changes within their lungs, he said. "We challenged rats with particles of different sizes and the smaller the particle the greater the inflammatory response," Howard said.
The material does not appear to matter, with the same results generated with fine particles of metals and of latex, Howard said. "It's the size that's the problem. The human body has been designed to carry microparticles, like proteins, and so nanoparticles travel easily round the body," he said.
Nanoparticles can become generators of free radicals and can be mutagenic "and we need to look very carefully before letting them become part of our environment," Howard said.
Doug Parr, Greenpeace U.K.'s chief scientist said that while there are clearly some worrying data on nanoparticles and their effects, "this is just a policy issue of how to deal with an undefined threat, and we've dealt with similar issues in the past. There's no need to reinvent the wheel." Greenpeace can see definite benefits, as well as problems, with nanotechnology, Parr said.
The public is concerned about TLC, Parr said. "that's Trust, Liability, Consent -- do they trust the people developing this? Will they take responsibility for what comes of it? And does the public have a say in what's done?" he said.