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Health Risk Debate: Is Nanotechnology Dangerous?

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A background paper by Germany's Federal Environment Agency earlier this week triggered fearful headlines in some of the country's biggest newspapers. But the agency is distancing itself from the coverage, saying it had presented nothing new in the report -- and that it also sees opportunities in nano.

Environment Agency on nanoparticles: "At this time there is no reason for real fear." Zoom
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Environment Agency on nanoparticles: "At this time there is no reason for real fear."

Breathless headlines about nanotechnology have ruffled feathers at Germany's Federal Environment Agency (UBA) this week. "Nanotechnology can make you sick," and "First official warning in Germany" about the dangers of nanotechnology, the headlines read. "The German Environment Agency warns against nanotechnology."

The maelstrom began earlier this week, when UBA specialists posted a 28-page paper about nanotechnology on their Web site -- a move that prompted a very vocal response. But officials at the agency feel they have been misunderstood. They claim the posting is neither a warning nor a new study -- it's just a background paper. "We haven't done any of our own research," UBA scientist Wolfgang Dubbert told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Dubbert is one of the authors of the paper, an updated version of a document published in 2006.

René Zimmer, an expert at the Independent Institute for Environmental Concerns (UfU), argues that the paper "really isn't new." He described it as a background paper that "is more or less a compilation of issues UBA had previously raised."

Extremely Small -- and also Exciting

Nanotechnology, which is widely considered one of the most exciting technologies of the 21st century and, according to experts, will be worth trillions of euros globally by the year 2020, utilizes materials at an atomic or molecular level -- nano literally means "extremely small" in Greek. Such materials now have many commercial and scientific applications -- from providing extra UV protection and skin care in sun cream and cosmetics to helping clean graffiti off walls more efficiently to significantly advancing industry, health care and the military.

In fact, there are already countless products on the market that feature nano-technological innovations. They can be found in everything from sunscreen to ketchups and powdered sugar. They have also been used in enviromentally-friendly products such as a thermal-insulating paint.

Germany is one of the European leaders in this area. A report by Nanoforum, an online gateway for nanotechnology news funded by the European Community, reports that the German government support for the technology is strong and that, "between 1998 and 2004, the volume of projects funded in Germany quadrupled to around €120 million."

"We do not know how many products there are on the market that contain nano-particles," Wolfgang Dubbert a spokesperson for the UBA told German press agency DPA on Wednesday. And consumers can't really avoid them either. Apart from sunscreen, "the products on the shelves are not labeled" as containing nano-particles.

Still, Dubbert said he felt the discussion sparked after the update was heading in the wrong direction. "You can't just talk about the risks -- you also have to look at the opportunities," the researcher said. UBA estimates that 800 German companies are currently active in the field of nanotechnology. The new government currently being formed between Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the business-friendly Free Democrats are considering making their support for the nascent industry a priority for the next administration.

Cautious Criticism

The paper, updated on Wednesday and named "Nanotechnology for Humans and the Environment: Increasing Chances, Minimizing Risks," certainly expresses plenty of reservations about nanotechnology. For example, the agency calls for a register of products that use nanotechnology as well as a recognizable consumer labelling indicating that a product contains nano-particles.

But the agency is cautious in its criticism and certainly not anything close to the near hysteria expressed by some respectable German newspapers. "In the opinion of many people in the industry, nanotechnology holds not only prospects for business, but also for improvements in environmental and health protection." They can also contribute to better efficiency. With the use of nanotechnology-optimized synthetics, the paper notes, the weight of cars and airplace could be reduced, thus helping save fuel. And because of their particularly long lifespan and greater efficiency, nanotechnology-optimized LEDs could help conserve energy.

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