Never before have scientists made such a proactive effort to study the safety of an emerging technology as they are currently doing with nanotechnology, says Dr Mark Wiesner from Duke University.
Wiesner’s contribution includes the creation of a series of ‘ponds’ to track nano-silver particles. Nano-silver is a good antibacterial agent and being used in medical plasters, socks, and clothes.
“Unlike previous situations where technology has been rolled out and we only later discovered the harms they caused, in the case of nanotechnology the scientific community is being proactive.”
“Public concern in nanotechnology has generally followed the concerns raised by the scientific community,” he said.
But he notes that no technology is completely safe. “Electricity for is essential to modern life. But it’s also a killer. We accept and manage the risk.”
At the conference, Wiesner described a multidisciplinary effort established by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation to study the environmental impact of nanomaterials.
Wiesner is the director of the Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology, established in late 2008, which receives $3.5 million in funding each year.
Its staff includes nanochemists, eco-toxicologists, ecologists, environmental engineers and biological and medical scientists. It is one of several such centres around the world.
“Our goal is to understand what are the sources of nanoparticles; where they go to in the environment; and what they will do when they get there,” Wiesner said.
In one set of experiments that are currently underway, researchers are studying nano-size silver particles in mini ecosystems designed to mimic freshwater wetlands.
These ‘mini-wetlands’ are four-metre-square boxes containing water and soil, which are open to the air and so to bacteria, insects and other animals. From April, the general public will be able to view the progress of the project via a webcam.