'Grey goo' misconceptions could harm poor in developing world


How opponents to nanotechnology could harm the opportunities of the poor in developing countries

A report published today on the Institute of Physics website Nanotechweb.org will say that Prince Charles' claims about nanotechnology could widen the chasm between have and have-not countries and damage the emerging nanotechnology industry in the developing world. This new analysis comes from a leading bioethics think-tank, the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics and is the first-ever survey of nanotechnology research in developing countries.

Dr Peter Singer, Director of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics and Dr Erin Court, the lead author of this report, argue that concerns over the legitimate risks of nanotechnology should be addressed through a new international process and not by resorting to a moratorium on research that promises vast improvement in the lives of five billion people in developing countries.

Dr Singer said: "Opposition from Prince Charles and pressure groups around the world should not be permitted to diminish the health, environmental and economic opportunities of the poor in Africa, Latin America and Asia."

This report outlines for the first time the health, environmental and economic benefits for developing countries of nanotechnology (NT). These include:

  • improved detection of cancer and HIV/AIDS by tagging biological molecules with nanometer-sized markers, avoiding in the process many drawbacks associated with organic dyes conventionally used to mark cells;
  • improved detection of tuberculosis with quantum dot optical biosensors. Development plans for a nanotech-based diagnostic kit to reduce the cost, time and the amount of blood required for TB tests was recently announced in India;
  • inexpensive miniaturized medical diagnostic devices easily used in remote regions;
  • more controlled and targeted administration of vaccinations using nanoparticle delivery systems;
  • the ability to repair skeletal tissue damaged by traffic accidents, the so-called "unseen epidemic" of developing countries, using nanotech-based bone scaffolds;
  • better monitoring of soil and crop toxicity levels through enzyme biosensors;
  • improved water purification technologies;
  • more effective clean-up of large oil spills.

Dr Peter Singer, who is a medical ethics expert, said: "While there are legitimate risks that need to be managed, an exclusive focus on the risks will create another divide 'the nano-divide' similar to the digital and genomics divides between industrialized and developing countries. There is a failure adequately to consider and understand how nanotechnology can bring benefits to 5 billion people in developing countries."

This survey of nanotechnology research in developing countries shows a surprising level of activity underway. They cluster developing countries into three groups based on their activity level: 'front-runners' (China, South Korea, India); 'middle ground' (Thailand, Philippines, South Africa, Brazil, Chile); and 'up and comers' (Argentina, Mexico).

The authors call for a new international network to assess emerging technologies for development, identify the potential risks and benefits of NT incorporating developed and developing world perspectives, and to explore the effects of a potential 'nano-divide'.

Such a global network would serve as a focal point to commission and collect research results, promote awareness of the potential applications of NT for development, create new regulatory regimes (or build upon existing ones) for managing NTs risks and promoting global public good.

The authors highlight the following concerns: How long will nanomaterials remain in the environment? How readily will nanomaterials bind to environmental contaminants? Will these particles move up through the food chain and what will be their effect on humans? How will the incorporation of artificial materials into human systems affect health, security and privacy? Who will control the means of production and who will get to debate the risks and benefits? What will be the effects of military and corporate control over NT?

There are also potential risk management issues specific to developing countries: displacement of traditional markets, the imposition of foreign values, the fear that technological advances will be extraneous to development needs, and the lack of resources to establish, monitor and enforce safety regulations.

Co-author Abdallah Daar said: "while overly apprehensive views and fear-mongering can prohibit serious progress, addressing the legitimate concerns associated with NT can foster public support and allow the technology to progress in a socially responsible manner. Will industrialized nations continue to invest in stain-resistant 'nano' trousers, NT-based cosmetics and other products solely for the rich, or will NTs potential to improve lives in the developing world be seized?"

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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