By Jennifer Sass Ph.D. Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council

A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series

We need make sure that harmful or untested nano-scale chemicals are not manufactured or commercialized in ways that may lead to human exposures or environmental releases. I know, I know, I sound like a Luddite. Well, I’m okay with that.

The Luddites were an organized social movement of skilled textile artisans that gained notoriety in early 19th century Britain for their protestations against mechanized weaving looms. The Luddites correctly predicted that their jobs would be replaced by industrial factories, cheap labor, and dehumanizing working conditions.

The term Luddite or Neo-Luddite is now a disparaging tag slapped on anyone that opposes new technologies. But the socioeconomic and geopolitical impacts associated with such changes – the real concern of the original Luddites – are rarely adequately addressed.

Is there a role for technology in progressive social movements? Sure.

It wasn’t until the mechanization of cotton harvesting in the 1980’s that Missouri Mississippi enacted compulsory education laws. New technology meant children were no longer needed in the field.

Lead wasn’t forced out of auto fuel when it was shown to destroy kid’s brains (known by the 1920s). It was removed when it was found to destroy catalytic converters introduced in the mid-1970’s. Technology not only saved future generations from leaded gasoline, but it reduced other harmful pollution from auto exhaust.

Nano-scale chemicals, intentionally designed to take advantage of unique properties at the small scale, are already offering social benefits, but at what costs?

Traditional treatment of hazardous waste sites is predominantly done with technologies such as carbon adsorption, chemical precipitation, filtration, steam, or bioremediation. Nanoremediation (can you believe there is already a new word for this?) can mean treatment with nanoscale metal oxides, carbon nanotubes, enzymes, or the already popular nanoscale zero-valent iron. The advantage is that the nano particles are more chemically-reactive and so may be designed to be more effective with less material. (see for example “Nanotechnology and in Situ Remediation: A Review of the Benefits and Potential Risks” by Karn et al., Environ. Health Perspect. 117, pp1823-1831. PDF,  1.2 MB)

But, what happens to the nanoparticles in the treated groundwater once they’ve completed their intended task? Do they just go away? Poof?

Carbon nanotubes are 100 times stronger than steel and six times lighter. Research to weave them into protective clothing is already underway, although nothing is on the market yet. Wearing a nano-carbon vest could make our soldiers bullet-proof, stab-proof, and still be light-weight.

But, what happens when the nanotubes are freed from the material, such as during the manufacturing of the textiles, fabrication of the clothing, or when it is damaged or destroyed in an explosion? Breathable nanotubes can be like asbestos fibers, causing deadly lung diseases.

If nano-scale elements are used extensively in electronics and computers, does this mean that most of the hazardous exposures associated with manufacturing and end-of-life stripping will fall to workers in the global south, whereas most of the advantages of improved technology will be reaped by the global north?

I’m not against new technologies per se. In fact, as a scientist I favor innovation. I love cool new stuff. But, will it make jobs more hazardous? Will it contaminate the environment? Will it contribute to social and economic injustices by distributing the risks and benefits unequally?

Let’s take some time to consider a thoughtful Luddite perspective by putting the brakes on applications of nano-scale chemicals that are untested, unsafe, unnecessary, or just unwise.

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Dr. Sass is a Senior Scientist in the Health and Environment program of the NRDC, an environmental non-profit organization. She oversees the U.S. government regulations of industrial chemicals and pesticides, and assesses the data underlying the regulatory decisions. Dr. Sass is well versed in the health sciences, with degrees in Anatomy and Cell Biology, and Toxicology, and has published over three dozen articles in peer-reviewed journals. Dr. Sass has presented testimony in the U.S. Congress and participated in U.S. government scientific advisory committees and the National Academies. She collaborates with scientists in the U.S. and internationally, working towards regulations that are as protective as possible of human and environmental health.

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