Nanotechnology is Entering a New Legal Frontier


By Krystina Steffen, staff SEO | Law Firm News Center In Good Practice writer – June 22, 2011

Nanotechnology is changing the products we use everyday – food, clothes, cars, and even medicine. For some, nanotechnology is a savior and a way to engineer goods and the landscape around us in powerful, novel ways. For others, it is a scary, uncharted territory with huge implications that could create a disaster.

In the legal landscape, U.S. and world institutions are only now coming out with some guidance as to how to proceed with nanoparticles infusing almost every industry. To date, there have been no mass lawsuits or big settlements involving nanotechnology. Worldwide, only Germany has had a health recall when a nanotech bathroom cleaner called “Magic Nano” caused serious respiratory issues in 77 people in 2006. [1]

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health only just released their guidance and approaches for safely using nanotechnology in April. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released their guidelines on FDA products that involve nanotechnology in June. As scientists race to create innovate nano products, companies embrace the technology in their quest for better products and profits, and consumers become surrounded by nanotechnology they might not even know is in their kitchen pantry or medicine cabinet.

Famed theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says that nanotechnology will become more pervasive and cheaper in the future. For example, chemotherapy is an aggressive way to treat cancer today. In the future that he sees, nanos will be able to “…zap cancer cells, individually, one by one. Those [nano] are molecules that hone in on cancer cells like smart bombs. In one trial, they were found to be 90 percent effective against tumors. When we have the capability to knock out cancer cells one by one, we will view chemotherapy like we view the leeches and bloodletting of a 100 years ago.” [2] But before treatment ever occurs, he envisions a future where your health status will be monitored through chips and nanos in the toilet. “Chips in toilets will look at proteins emitted from cancer colonies of just a 100 cancer cells, decades before a tumor actually forms – which means the word "tumor" could disappear from English language. This is going to revolutionize how we diagnose disease.”

Scientists, researchers and proponents of nanotechnology see the opportunity of this tiny structure to create good for the masses. As nanos become better known by regulators and consumer advocates, everyone has begun to try to define it. Overall, nanotechnology is defined by the National Nanotechnology Initiative as: 1) one billionth of a meter, on a scale of one to 100 nanometers; 2) the creation and use of structures, devices or systems with new properties and functions because of their small size; and 3) ability to be controlled or manipulated on the atomic scale. [3] To get a grasp of the small size, there are 25.4 million nanometers in one inch and a human fingernail grows one nanometer per second. [4]

What nanotechnology lacks in size, it makes up for in power. Research and studies are just being produced that show the good and bad side of nanotechnology. Kaiku’s referenced cancer trials are an obvious benefit to society. But other studies show nanotechnology’s more disastrous side. Nanoparticles can easily interact with other materials and chemicals, sometimes causing more reactivity and toxicity. These particles can bypass the blood-brain barrier, affecting the central nervous system, organs, tissues, and even an expectant mother’s placental barrier. Nanoparticles have been shown to be more absorbed by the body, increasing the bioavailability of how the nanoengineered material can affect the body. As the nonprofit advocacy group Food & Water Watch says, “To avoid similar disasters in the future, nanotechnology’s effects should be adequately studied before they are allowed onto the market. Chemicals like PCBs and pesticides like DDT and dieldrin, which were once thought to be safe, were not truly understood until long after human health and environmental damage already occurred.” [5]

Not only do consumer advocates push for research on nanotechnology-based products, they also want research on the associated risks nanos can have on the air and soil, their longevity and durability characteristics, potential for bioaccumulation, and risk assessments for workers who produce materials with them. With guided research and open communication, nanotechnology could create some amazing societal and economic impacts. As the authors of the International Handbook On Regulating Nanotechnologies say, “…society will need new thinking, new partnerships, and new mechanisms to balance the benefits of these technologies against their possible downsides. Anything less will prompt cries of illegitimacy and potentially compromise a promising new realm of technology...

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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