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Nanotech–Invisible Source of Fear
The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo), September 3
By: Tatsuya Kimura / Yomiuri Shimbun

Nanotechnology, which deals with ultrafine substances (nano means one-billionth), is predicted to be a key technology in the 21st century. Therefore, it is important that we accumulate scientific data about whether materials used in nanotechnology adversely affect human health. Scientists predict that nanotechnology will bring revolutionary changes to energy, information technology, medical and other technological fields. The government has chosen nanotechnology as one of the four sciences and technologies to which it is giving priority. Research and development in the field is increasing, driven by the private sector.

Carbon nanotubes, a key nanotech material, was discovered by a Japanese, and the researcher is expected to receive the Nobel Prize. But although Japan is a world leader in the field of nanotechnology, Japan has given little thought as to the impact on human health of nano-sized particles. In comparison, Europe and the United States have seen heated debates in recent years about the possibility that nanotechnology poses health risks.

In response to this inquiring spirit overseas, the government in July established a project to determine whether nanoparticles adversely affect human health. The project is being conducted under the auspices of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). About 70 researchers in nanotechnology and other fields, including toxicity, ethics and the economy, are participating in the project. Based on reports of studies conducted at home and abroad, the researchers will present a report by March on how to inform people on any potential risks nanoparticles may pose to their health and the environment, and how to alleviate anxiety over the matter.

Nanoparticles exist in the natural environment. Fullerenes, a kind of spherical nanoparticle, are created naturally by fires and thunder and have existed on Earth since the dawn of time. Some overseas reports say that experiments on animals have determined that nanoparticles have an adverse effect on the lungs and brain. At the same time, other researchers say an agreed-upon methodology for such experiments has not been established, and that the studies are not at the stage where they can scientifically ascertain the effects of nanoparticles on human health. Currently, nothing definite can be said about the matter one way or the other, but competition in R&D; on nanotechnology is intensifying.

In the United States, the National Nanotechnology Initiative was established in fiscal 2001. In fiscal 2005, the United States invested about 100 billion yen in the field–as did Japan. An important characteristic of U.S. research into nanotechnology is that about 10 percent of the budget is used for studies into the effect of nanoparticles on health and the environment, and for communicating the information to the public.

European countries have also drafted proposals regarding the safety of nanotechnology.

Masafumi Ata, senior researcher at AIST, said, “Nanotechnology will not be accepted by the public unless the risks are scientifically examined.”

For advanced technologies to proliferate, the public has to be informed about how safe they are. An example of a failure to do so was the widespread opposition to genetically engineered crops that arose mainly in European countries. As the uses of nanotechnology in a wider range of industries increases–resulting in the public being exposed more and more to nanoparticles–people will pay more attention to how safe the technology is. Nanoparticles may become an invisible source of fear because they are invisible to the naked eye. Therefore, it is essential to respond to safety concerns by obtaining and correlating data about the types, features and concentrations of nanoparticles.

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