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Friends of the Earth at OECD meeting on potential benefits of nanotechnology

Posted Aug. 10, 2009 / Posted by: RConnors

OECD logoOur Health and Environment Campaigner, Ian Illuminato, traveled to Paris, France in mid July to speak at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conference.  The conference's focus was Potential Environmental Benefits of Nanotechnology: Fostering Safe Innovation-Led Growth (click to view the background document for the meeting). We presented our findings on the human and environmental health risks of nanotechnologies with a ‘green’ purpose such as those used for water filtration, toxics clean-up, and energy conservation applications.

Nanotechnology is promoted as a green solution for many global woes. It is oftten touted as a technology that will clean our water, make our food safer and more nutritious, and propel our economies towards a new era of growth and prosperity. Sounds promising. Yet, authoritative members of government, the scientific community, civil society, academia, labor unions, and even industry have identified a need for critical assessment and precaution in the development and commercialization of nanotechnologies.

Rigorous scientific studies have demonstrated that nanoparticles, employed in many products on the market, have the potential to be toxic to organisms both aquatic and terrestrial. Some nanoparticles have even been found to damage and mutate DNA, an intimate part of the construction of life. When potential problems of this consequence have been reported, a precautionary approach to the widespread use of these manufactured particles would seem to be the natural response.

In our presentation, we highlighted the fact that, despite warnings about nanotechnology toxicity, governments worldwide have yet to demonstrate their commitment to investigating the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) implications of nanotechnology — at least in terms of providing adequate monetary resources for doing so. Nanotechnology is backed by billions of global investment dollars from governments, yet only a ‘nano-sized’ portion of this money is being invested to support EHS assessments. According to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, less than 3 percent of the $1.4 billion U.S. federal nanotechnology research budget of 2006 was spent on EHS.

Lack of EHS funding and the potential toxicity of nanoparticles are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues surrounding the proliferation of nanotechnologies. During the three day meeting, we also highlighted the fact that manufacturing nanoparticles can be extremely energy-intensive and some of the chemicals used for nano-manufacturing can be highly toxic. Friends of the Earth has argued that in addition to introducing a new generation of toxic chemicals, nanotechnology is also likely to underpin a new wave of industrial expansion and economic globalization that will magnify existing resource and energy use.

In preparation for the meeting, we created a briefing on the risk realities of these technologies. We made certain that our conclusions were included in the draft OECD document prepared shortly after the meeting; we are hoping that the OECD will keep our recommendations and conclusions in the final document that will be released far and wide in the coming months. Furthermore, we sent a letter to leaders within the OECD demanding the organization make its meetings better accessible to experts and NGOs from developing nations with fewer resources.

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