Nanotech's health, environment impacts worry scientists

The unknown human health and environmental impacts of nanotechnology are a bigger worry for scientists than for the public, according to a new report published today (Nov. 25) in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

The new report was based on a national telephone survey of American households and a sampling of 363 leading U.S. nanotechnology scientists and engineers. It reveals that those with the most insight into a technology with enormous potential -- and that is already emerging in hundreds of products -- are unsure what health and environmental problems might be posed by the technology.

"Scientists aren't saying there are problems," says the study's lead author Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of life sciences communication and journalism. "They're saying, 'we don't know. The research hasn't been done.'"

The new findings are in stark contrast to controversies sparked by the advent of technologies of the past such as nuclear power and genetically modified foods, which scientists perceived as having lower risks than did the public.

Nanotechnology rests on science's newfound ability to manipulate matter at the smallest scale, on the order of molecules and atoms. The field has enormous potential to develop applications ranging from new antimicrobial materials and tiny probes to sample individual cells in human patients to vastly more powerful computers and lasers. Already products with nanotechnology built in include such things as golf clubs, tennis rackets and antimicrobial food storage containers.

At the root of the information disconnect, explains Scheufele, who conducted the survey with Elizabeth Corley at Arizona State University, is that nanotechnology is only now starting to emerge on the nation's policy agenda. Amplifying the problem is that the news media have paid scant attention to nanotechnology and its implications.

"In the long run, this information disconnect could undermine public support for federal funding in certain areas of nanotechnology research," says Corley.

"Nanotechnology is starting to emerge on the policy agenda, but with the public, it's not on their radar," says Scheufele. "That's where we have the largest communication gap."

While scientists were generally optimistic about the potential benefits of nanotechnology, they expressed significantly more concern about pollution and new health problems related to the technology. Potential health problems were in fact the highest rated concern among scientists, Scheufele notes.

Twenty percent of the scientists responding to the survey indicated a concern that new forms of nanotechnology pollution may emerge, while only 15 percent of the public thought that might be a problem. More than 30 percent of scientists expressed concern that human health may be at risk from the technology, while just 20 percent of the public held such fears.

Of more concern to the American public, according to the Nature Nanotechnology report, are a potential loss of privacy from tiny new surveillance devices and the loss of more U.S jobs. Those fears were less of a concern for scientists.

While scientists wonder about the health and environmental implications of the new technology, their ability to spark public conversation seems to be limited, Scheufele says. "Scientists tend to treat communication as an afterthought. They're often not working with social scientists, industry or interest groups to build a channel to the public," he says.

The good news for scientists, Scheufele explains, is that of all sources of nanotechnology information, they are the most trusted by the public.

"I think the public wants to know more. The applications are out there and that concern gap has to be addressed," Scheufele argues. "The climate for having that discourse is perfect. There is definitely a huge opportunity for scientists to communicate with a public who trusts them."

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Explore further

Study shows increased education on nanotech, human enhancement increases public concerns

Citation: Nanotech's health, environment impacts worry scientists (2007, November 25) retrieved 16 July 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 25, 2007
Dear Sirs,
Clearly the media needs to bring out the field of nanotechnology to the public. . .without glitz or fanfare. That 600 nanotechnological products, including 70 that are food related, are being sold WITHOUT THE PUBLIC'S KNOWLEDGE OR CONSENT, IS APPALLING TO ME - IF NOT INSIDIOUS AND COVERT. It has already been shown through your newsletter that carbon nanotubes severely debilitate and/or kill mice and fish. The bloodbrain barrier is easily penetrated by nanostructures and so are most human cells. I CANNOT EMPHASIZE ENOUGH THE NEED FOR THE PUBLIC TO GET INFORMED AND, ONCE INFORMED, TAKE ACTION TO PRODUCE MEANINGFUL REGULATION, OVERSIGHT, TESTING AND CONTROL OF NANOTECHNOLOGY. Happy Holidays to all.

Nov 25, 2007
of course the media ignors nanotech.its in the name for one.nano.the media seeks macro.preferably with plenty of blood and hacking.humanity quietly going insane or dying from invisable thingies has no news apeal.

Nov 26, 2007
it is imperative that avenues be explored that allow us to maximize the benefits while we minimize the risks. one challenge remains the broad differences in materials at the nano-level. there is no way to make blanket statements about nanotech. different materials act differently & exhibit unique properties from element to element & composite to composite. everyone fears any efforts to oversee the technology will be its death sentence but not to do so could be ours as a species. what is needed is an independent characterization agency much like the NCL that analyzes materials used in fighting, diagnosing & imaging cancer. it seems even if U.S. does can we expect nations around the world to follow safety guidelines? an international consensus seems virtually impossible but this still remains no excuse to make an effort to ensure safety & optimization.

Nov 26, 2007
"Amplifying the problem is that the news media have paid scant attention to nanotechnology and its implications."

Of course: It's hard to fit the intricacies of nanotech into an entertaining 5 minute TV news spot.

"Of more concern to the American public, according to the Nature Nanotechnology report, are a potential loss of privacy from tiny new surveillance devices and the loss of more U.S jobs."

Of course: Those are the concerns about "technology" in general that the "mainstream" media has been feeding the public for several years. It's what people think of first when they hear "technology."

"There is definitely a huge opportunity for scientists to communicate with a public who trusts them."

Not sure how much the average Joe trusts scientists. But he's correct that this is a good opportunity to finally get that dialog right. That's particularly true with the internet's ability to bypass conventional media outlets, which often don't "get" science at all.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more