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Brandon Engel

While nanotechnology has advanced humanity considerably in a short time (especially in terms of its medical applications), there are still some environmentalists and consumer advocates who are concerned about the use of nanotechnology in consumer goods.

January 16th, 2015

Nanotechnology and Environmental Concerns

Nanotechnology has been used in several products since at least the turn of the 21st Century. For instance, zinc oxide is now used in sunblock, and silver nanoparticles are used in disinfectants. However, there are some who fear that nanotechnology might have (as of yet untold) adverse consequences on the environment. This has helped to create stigma around the use of nanotechnology in commercial goods.

And while there is some ambiguity about whether or not Nanotech does pose significant environmental risks, the data currently available to either bolster or debunk these assumptions is, at best, insufficient.

This is perhaps one of the unfortunate consequences of the green movement that large segments of society will condemn and fear practices that a.) may be largely misunderstood, and b.) could actually benefit the earth long term. There are many positive things that can be said about the general public becoming concerned about the welfare of the environment. Major companies are looking to reduce their carbon footprints while energy producers like Epcor are working harder than ever to bring alternative energy into homes. These are all perfectly noble pursuits. But it can also be said that there are situations where the public, and perhaps even scientists themselves, become overzealous in condemning practices that aren't yet fully understood, and this can prove to be harmful to society.

Expert Robert Biddlecome wrote about the current legislation on the books in the European Union. In the EU, Biddlecome says, firms who manufacture food, cosmetics, and biocides are "now required to indicate the presence of nanomaterials in their products by placing the word ‘nano' in brackets after the substance in the list of ingredients." There are, however, many discrepancies state to state in the EU regarding their handling of nanoparticles in consumer goods. The French Register, for instance, has no data recorded on the presence of nanomaterials in commercial goods. Belgium and Denmark, however, are much for stringent about collecting such data. Other countries around the world react differently to nanotech. In Brazil, for example, the laws are much more lax, with recent news of labs developing edible plastic through experimentations with nanotechnology.

Obviously, there are many important questions about the role of government in a situation such as this. Biddlecomb, for one, takes the stance that governments need to proceed with caution. "As with so many other emerging technologies," Biddlecomb said, "governments walk a difficult line. On the one hand, they cannot ignore the legitimate concerns of their citizens in respect of technology which may have a wide-ranging environmental impact but on which their may be limited reliable data." Biddlecomb went on to suggest that "any government would be reluctant to stifle innovation and investment (thereby adversely affecting employment and the economy) by over-regulating a nascent industry."

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