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April 15th, 2007

Nanotechnology risks - the real issues

Nano-this and nano-that. These days it seems you need the prefix "nano" for products or applications if you want to be either very trendy or incredibly scary. This "nanotrend" has assumed "mega" proportions: Patent offices around the world are swamped with nanotechnology-related applications; investment advisors compile nanotechnology stock indices and predict a coming boom in nanotechnology stocks with misleading estimates floating around of a trillion-dollar industry within 10 years; pundits promise a new world with radically different medical procedures, manufacturing technologies and solutions to environmental problems; nano conferences and trade shows are thriving all over the world; scientific journals are awash in articles dealing with nanoscience discoveries and nano technologies breakthroughs. Nanotechnology has been plagued by a lot of hype, but cynicism and criticism have not been far behind. Science fiction writers exploit fears of nanorobots turning into killers; the media can run amok when news about potential health problems with nanoproducts surface (as happened last year with a product recall for a bathroom cleaner in Germany). Some see doomsday scenarios of molecular self-assembly turning the world into "grey goo." The emerging polarization of opinions on nanotechnology is reminiscent of controversies about genetically modified plants or nuclear energy. Vague promises of a better life are met by equally vague, generalized fears about a worse future. These debates have some aspects in common: the subject is complex and not easy to explain; there is no consensus on risks and benefits; scientists and corporations seem able to proceed unchecked, and it is unclear who is in control.


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