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Canadians are starting to see nanotechnology used in common household items such as sunscreen, socks and children's toys. Meanwhile, governments and companies around the world are racing to control this technology.
All this leaves many people wondering: do the benefits of nanotech outweigh the potential risks to our environment from unregulated consumer products? Does its economic promise justify the social and economic changes it may bring? To explore these and other issues, Dimensions presents the views of four leading Canadian experts on the science, regulation and risks of nanotechnology. The discussion that follows summarizes an NRC-hosted public forum, entitled “Nanotech: the big controversy of miniature science,” held on June 6, 2011, in Ottawa.
Meet our panelists:
Dr. Agnes Klein, Director,
Centre for Evaluation of Radiopharmaceuticals and Biotherapeutics, Health Canada
Dr. Elizabeth Nielsen, Member,
Board of Directors, Consumers Council of Canada
Dr. Abedelnasser Abulrob, Research Officer, National Research Council Canada (NRC) Institute for Biological Sciences
Pat Roy Mooney, Executive Director,
Dr. Agnes Klein: I head one of the review centres in the Biologics and Genetic Therapies Directorate of Health Canada, which regulates the drugs you buy at the drugstore. Nanotechnology from a regulatory perspective is not a new phenomenon. Many anti-cancer drugs are covered with a liposome, a tiny sphere made of a fatty material, which has a better chance of reaching its target and producing an equally good therapeutic effect without safety issues. From Health Canada's perspective, anything with a dimension of less than 100 microns is deemed to be nanotechnology or a nanoproduct. We are well aware that we have to weigh both the benefits and the risks when we evaluate this stuff. But there is always something more to learn. Knowledge is incremental: what we don't know today, we will know tomorrow.
Dr. Elizabeth Nielsen: I represent the Consumers Council of Canada, which is interested in the safety of the marketplace. Many years ago, I worked at Health Canada and my background was in science ' specifically product safety. I'm now a member of a technical committee for the International Organization for Standardization, which is developing nanotechnology standards. In 2008, I put together a report for the Consumer's Council to help consumers understand what nanotechnology is and where it's being used.
Today in the marketplace, many consumer products contain nanomaterials. I’m not talking about the products pre-approved by Health Canada, but the ones that aren’t. Products for which no evaluation is done include clothes and children’s toys that use nanomaterials either to strengthen them or for anti-bacterial purposes. We’ve got windows that will clean themselves, clothes that don’t wrinkle, while nanomaterials that promote energy conservation and efficiency are being used in GM and Ford vehicles. The problem is that government regulators don’t even have the correct methodologies to assess nanotechnology products, so it’s “buyer beware.”
Dr. Abedelnasser Abulrob: I’m a researcher at NRC. I lead a team that tries to find different ways to utilize nanotechnology to improve human health. I use nanotechnology for molecular imaging, where we try to spot diseases at a very early stage, such as, for example, a few cancer cells behaving badly. If we can detect diseases at a very early stage, we can improve the health of patients. I’m a big believer in the power of innovation to advance our nation and help us compete with the world.
Pat Roy Mooney: I’m a founder of the ETC Group, which is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights. I’m interested in who owns and controls nanotechnology: who has the patents and the power will determine how the technology actually gets used. Nanotechnology is an economic battleground between nation states as well as between corporations. Issues of safety, environmental concern, health and so on are marginal at best compared to who is going to win and gain control of nanotechnology first.
Since 2000, about $50 billion has been spent by the global public sector on nanotechnology. Since 2007, private sector investment in nanotechnologies has exceeded public sector investment. Because there are thousands of products in the marketplace now, government regulators do not want to hear bad news.Back to questions
Dr. Abedelnasser Abulrob: Being competitive is always a good thing. We don’t want to rely only on our natural resources for economic prosperity. Many countries don’t have oil or natural resources, but they have great minds that bring wealth to the nation.
Why nanotechnology? Because we have the expertise and facilities to compete in this field. Through nanotechnology innovation, we could manufacture products and export them to the world. There is no point in giving up just because China is overtaking everybody. We have to stay in the game. We don’t want to rely just on what other countries produce.
Pat Roy Mooney: I can see major potential for benefits around alternative energy, water purification and recycling of materials that could be very helpful.
If you look at the possibility of replacing natural rubber using a nanoparticulis rubber that lasts forever, you could give your 16-year-old kid the keys to a car and a new set of tires and they could pass these tires to their grandchildren in their will. That would be good for you, but really bad for the 12 million people in Thailand who grow rubber if they don’t realize quickly enough that their economy is about to be transformed.
Dr. Abedelnasser Abulrob: I’ve been working on nanotechnology for several years. I use iron oxide nanoparticles to tag and attach to antibodies, so we can visualize cancer at a very early stage. We could actually save lives here. At NRC, we are great fans of how nanotechnology may affect and change our lives for the better.
Dr. Agnes Klein: The human is a very complex biological system, so you can never be 100 percent certain. When evaluating a new medicine or medical device, we like to use what we call the “precautionary principle,” which involves making the safest decision possible based on the available evidence, and making provisions for a large safety margin that limits the amount of potential risk to people who will take the medicine.
Another way we look at it is to carefully say: what is the overall benefit to be had from the use of the health care product and what will happen to an individual notwithstanding some of the risks?
Dr. Abedelnasser Abulrob: I’ve never heard of anyone dying or getting sick from nanoparticles. Still we have to be cautious. We may need more regulation and more evaluation. But at the same time, we need to balance this with innovation. To bring just one drug from the lab to the market costs about $1.6 billion.
Pat Roy Mooney: Besides clothing, nanotechnology is most often used in sunscreens and cosmetics ' of which the added-value benefits are highly dubious. A net benefit around wrinkle-free skin? It’s silly to talk about a net benefit when there are gaping holes in our knowledge. When companies put titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in sunscreens or cosmetics, they have no clear idea what size nanoparticles they’re using. Depending upon their size, they could go through your skin or into the organs of your body. Maybe they could pass through the blood-brain barrier or the placenta? How can regulators draw the conclusion that approving these products is worth any potential risk?
But I honestly don’t think nanoparticles need to be dangerous, and I don’t know if they are. I just know that not enough work has been done to test them adequately. With proper research, we may find that nanoparticles can be wrapped in polymers that may theoretically make them safe.
Dr. Elizabeth Nielsen: Unfortunately, no assessment is done with respect to most non-food and non-drug consumer products. And no assessment is done for how it impacts on cosmetics. Under the Food and Drugs Act, Health Canada definitely does an evaluation of drugs and medical devices, but nothing for general consumer products. The new Consumer Product Safety Act does not require any pre-evaluation before products come to market, although it will require that the manufacturer does a risk assessment.
Dr. Elizabeth Nielsen: Nanoparticles are not quite like the individual molecules that pass through your body. They are designed for specific purposes and are very reactive because of their high surface areas. Take nano-silver, which consists of very tiny particles of silver. Silver has anti-bacterial properties and nano-silver is designed to kill bacteria. Companies are putting them in socks or hockey equipment so they won’t smell. They’re also putting them in teddy bears for children, who may suck on them and ingest particles.
If socks that contain nano-silver are put in a washing machine, some of the particles will end up in our waterways and kill bacteria in the environment, which is what they’re made to do. That’s when you have a problem.
Pat Roy Mooney: A really important issue is intellectual property. We're seeing a handful of corporations in a handful of countries trying to control this technology.
The patents being granted in nanotechnology are unbelievable. Imagine a single patent that cuts across 33 different elements ? essentially a third of the periodic table ' which is used in the automobile industry but could also be used in pharmaceuticals, beverages, explosives, aerospace, etc. because it involves a fundamental level of technological control at the nanoscale. One patent can apply to the entire economy.
For example, we may not need cotton anymore: we could make carbon nanotubes that breathe and function better than cotton does. One hundred million people around the world grow cotton or produce or sew cotton to survive. Overnight, they could lose their livelihood if carbon nanotubes replaced cotton.
Dr. Elizabeth Nielsen: One issue of concern is the question of privacy. You can use nanotechnology to develop nanosensors, some of which are excellent. You could, for example, monitor glucose levels in your blood, which would be very helpful if you have diabetes. Or you could inject nanosensors into elderly parents with Alzheimer's disease to know where they are all the time. But what about injecting them into your teenage daughter without her knowledge?
What about using sensors for covert surveillance? In the U.S., they're now putting them in the paint that goes on the walls in train stations, so they know if anybody is carrying a radioactive or chemical weapon. These sensors are so small you wouldn't know if they were tracking you.
ISSN 1927-0275 = Dimensions (Ottawa. Online)