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3 / Potential hazards : What do scientists think ?

Like any scientific revolution, the nanotechnology boom raises new ethical questions. In France, the CNRS Ethics Committee (Comets) will issue an eagerly awaited opinion on the subject in 2006, after a year of work, internal deliberations, and meetings with researchers.




© Antoine Dagan

From the nanoworld to the visible world
(click on the image to enlarge)



anticipating risk

The first basic question is whether nanoparticles present a risk to people or to the environment. It is well known that some nanoparticles can have beneficial effects on health, like fullerenes, for example, which capture free radicals. Since August 2005, a dozen CNRS teams have been working together to study the different biological effects of nanoparticles on two types of cells: eukaryotic mammal cells (to measure toxicity in humans) and bacteria (to evaluate the ecotoxicological risk). “We want to see whether such particles are capable of piercing the cell membrane to accumulate there, and if so, whether they are transformed by the cells,” explains Barbara Gouget, project coordinator within the Human and Environmental Toxicology team.1 “They could accumulate and damage certain organs of the human body, depending on the means of contamination and the state of the nanoparticle surface,” specifies Marie Carrière, a CEA researcher on the team. Several studies, notably American ones, have revealed potential risks for people, “but they are often contradictory and not reproducible,” explains Éric Gaffet, a senior researcher at CNRS who is participating in the Nanosafe II program.2 “In these articles, we don't even know what types of nanoparticles were studied or what their surface properties are.” Gaffet is also participating in the work group “Nanomaterials and Safety” set up in November 2004 within the Ecrin association.3 Its work includes proposing standards for experimental testing of nanotechnology hazards, currently lacking. “There is little doubt that we will be able to manage the risks when they are known; after all, we know how to industrially manipulate products that are much more dangerous,” affirms Claude Weisbuch, a CNRS senior researcher. “It will be up to the authorities to set policies, as they do today for other dangerous products. We already know that most nano-objects become harmless when they are integrated into a matrix. But we need to analyze their lifecycle, to ensure that non-recyclable products are not harmful or can be treated to become harmless and that the products resulting from the breakdown of nano-objects will not contaminate the environment in the long run.” Production in industrial quantities of most nano-objects should begin in about 10 years, leaving time to prepare for waste disposal.


the privacy issue

Beyond the sanitation aspect, there are ethical issues to address on the possible consequences of nanotechnologies on our daily life. Take the example of RFIDs (Radio Frequency Identification Devices), the electronic tags that are used to identify pets, to replace car keys, or even to track products from the factory all the way to the customer. RFIDs are not generally nanometric, but miniaturization will probably bring them in the realm of nanotechnology. In the near future, such devices will multiply in our daily life, and will also be capable of transmitting personal information: “Due to privacy concerns, some general principles have already been suggested. These would include signaling their presence and properties, setting limits on the data exchanged, crosschecking, and giving us the possibility of removing or blocking the devices,” indicates Louis Laurent, head of the “Matter and Information” department of the National Research Agency (ANR) who specializes in this field.4 Indeed, nanotechnologies will offer the possibility of blending information technologies in our environment. This could go as far as the use of communicating electronic “smart dust,” minuscule systems capable of networking, to gather and transmit information. “People need a level of privacy, be it through medical confidentiality, closed proceedings, or anonymity,” explains Laurent. “But the rise of insecurity, criminality, and terrorism can lead society to accept giving up some aspects of privacy in exchange for added security.”


a new paradigm

Another sensitive subject is the medical applications of nanosystems implanted directly in the human body. Even if some are worried  by the use of anti-kidnapping systems on children or remote surveillance of detainees on probation, the grafting of communicating objects could change the lives of people who are handicapped by an illness. “This would allow continuous diagnosis, even injection of medications, giving greater freedom of movement to people currently immobilized by illness,” predicts Louis Laurent. This does not mean that the door is wide open to any system that “improves” the human being. The “Converging Technologies” (better known under the acronym NBIC, for nano-, bio-, info-, cogno-), is a major American research program launched in 2002 by the US National Science Foundation. It is working towards the convergence of biotechnologies, information technologies, cognitive sciences and nanotechnologies, the latter binding the whole. “By combining living and nonliving forms, this program may lead to an instrumentalization of nature and domination of matter,” worries Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, historian and philosopher of sciences at the University of Paris-X and member of Comets. “This convergence would move humanity towards a new paradigm: that of the mechanization of the spirit, that of the man-machine.” Following the example of Jean-Pierre Dupuy (see box), she therefore recommends constant technological monitoring, together with a deep ethical reflection that brings together civil society, politicians, and of course the scientific community. The Comets report, expected this year, will bring a precious building block to that edifice.


Matthieu Ravaud





© P. Chiquelin



For the philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy,1 the current debate partly clouds the profound changes that nanotechnologies could bring to our society.


Ethical debates on the subject of nanotechnologies are multiplying. Yet you have chosen to sound the alarm...

Jean-Pierre Dupuy: This is because the vast majority of debates deals with risk in the classic sense, or on “cost-benefit” type analysis. People often confuse ethics and prudence, and we end up with a dialog between opponents envisioning catastrophic scenarios and proponents who think that the most serious risk to a country is to be left out of the race. The scientific community is thus trapped, with little debate on other aspects that are at least as important as the risks everyone describes.


What should the debate focus on?

J-PD: The nanotechnologies, and more specifically their convergence with biotechnologies, information technologies, and cognitive sciences, will profoundly transform our relationship with the world, with nature and with ourselves. This convergence strives quite simply to take over from biological evolution. Furthermore, people are already speaking of “artificial nature.” In our representations, the nonliving, the living, and the artifact are well on the way to merging. Are these changes good or bad? I'm not going to answer that question, but it must be asked so that we don't leave the field open to dangerous ideologies, like trans-humanism.2


What solutions do you propose?

J-PD: The lesser evil is to attempt to follow the development of nanotechnologies, and even try to anticipate it, through permanent monitoring and impact studies. But above all, it's time to break the myth of the neutrality of science. Every scientist should feel concerned by this debate. Science can no longer shrug off its responsibility.


Interviewed by Matthieu Ravaud


1. CNRS senior researcher, professor of moral and political philosophy at the École polytechnique (Paris) and Stanford University (US), member of Académie des technologies and the Conseil général des Mines.

2. International movement which seeks to use technologies to accelerate the passage to the next stage of biological evolution, called post-human.


> Contact: Jean-Pierre Dupuy



Notes :

1. Pierre Sue Laboratory (LPS) ( CNRS / CEA at Saclay joint lab).
2. Program of evaluation and management of the risk from fabrication and use of nanomaterials, initiated by CNRS and led by the CEA. View web site
3. Created in 1990 by CNRS and the CEA, Ecrin is a non-profit organization that encourages relations between research laboratories and industry.
4. Also a member of the interdisciplinary commission on “Social Impact and Nanotechnology Development” of the National Committee for Scientific Research.

Contacts :

> Barbara Gouget

> Marie Carrière

> Éric Gaffet,

> Claude Weisbuch

> Louis Laurent,

> Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent


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