If you have concerns about the development of nanotechnology, you might want to keep an eye on the 'partnership' between the chemical industry giant DuPont and Environmental Defense (ED), the New York-based environmental group.
The project, according to a joint media release issued in October 2005 by ED's Fred Krupp and DuPont's Chad Halliday, is to "identify, manage and reduce potential health, safety and environmental risks of nano-scale materials across all lifecycle stages." Once developed, the framework will "then be pilot-tested on specific nano-scale materials or applications of commercial interest to DuPont."
To be fair, ED has flagged concerns about there being inadequate health and environmental assessments of nanotechnologies to date. However, ED hasn't mentioned publicly what they think about DuPont and other companies having products that are already on the market without such assessments.
What will the 'partnership' deliver?
What the ED and DuPont 'partnership' will involve is unclear, as their agreement is not a public document. My requests to ED for a copy of the agreement, or even a summary of its contents, went unanswered. The only detail available is a June 14, 2005 opinion column Krupp and Halliday co-authored for the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Citing products that were widely used before their dangers were known -- DDT, leaded petrol (gas) and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons -- Krupp and Halliday patted themselves on the back for taking action now to ensure nanotech's safety. "An early and open examination of the potential risks of a new product or technology is not just good common sense -- it’s good business strategy," they wrote.
"Businesses should conduct the needed testing before new products enter commercial use," they wrote. But what testing DuPont has done on its nanotech Teflon is unclear. (Curiously, a June 3, 2003 DuPont media release announcing the new product, titled, "Teflon®: Protecting Natural Leather and Suede," no longer appears in the company's online news archive. It does still show up on the cached copy of the site index.)
Independent testing has raised some questions. One laboratory study by researchers from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry's Department of Environmental Medicine raised concerns about the health effects of ultrafine Teflon particles on rats and mice.
Moreover, U.S. citizens doubt that companies or their government will effectively protect public health and the environment from risks associated with nanotechnology. A recent report, commissioned by the Project on Emerging Technologies (PET), included a series of focus group discussions on nanotechnology. "Participants were concerned about the existence of hundreds of nanotechnology-enabled products in the marketplace and the expenditure of billions of dollars of taxpayer money on nanotech R&D without public involvement," noted the report. (PET is a project partially-funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which in turn partially-funded ED's costs with the DuPont partnership).
The report also noted that, after focus group participants had been exposed to nantoechnology discussions, support for an outright ban dropped substantially. However, those surveyed remained wary about whether human health or the environment would be protected by effective regulations. "The majority of study participants felt that voluntary safety standards applied to industry would not be sufficient to manage the potential risks associated with nanotechnology; 55% said government control beyond voluntary standards is necessary, while 33% were unsure. Only 11% felt voluntary standards would be adequate," the report stated.
Krupp's and Halliday's plan includes greater public expenditure on the risks of nanotechnologies and the development of "interim" global standards, to be adopted "while regulations are under development." They also argue that existing regulations "should be reassessed and changed," and even more cryptically suggest that "new approaches" to protect the public should be adopted.
This suggests a 'partnership' aimed at bestowing existing commercial nanotech products with a degree of legitimacy that they don't necessarily deserve. The partnership's unspoken goals seem to include DuPont's desire to limit its potential legal liabilities with ED's infatuation with market-based measures.
In addition, DuPont's recent history includes not disclosing protential health hazards. In mid-December 2005, DuPont agreed to pay a fine of $16.5 million to settle a legal action initiated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for the company's failure to promptly disclose high levels of the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in residents near a West Virgina plant. PFOA, also known as C8, is a potential carcinogen that is used by DuPont to make Teflon non-stick coating for cookware and other products.
Can ED Be Trusted?
If DuPont's track record doesn't inspire confidence, what about ED's? It is entirely fair to ask what the group's agenda is and what trade-offs it is prepared to make to further that agenda.
In the past, ED has unilaterally decided that they know best, even going so far as to undermine the campaigns of other environmental health groups. In 1990, McDonald's Corporation faced a growing campaign, coordinated by the Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Wastes, against its use of ozone-destroying styrofoam. ED opportunistically 'partnered' with McDonald's to launch a joint "waste reduction plan." The result was a highly touted deal that gave McDonald's a reputation as a "socially responsible" business, while weakening CCHW's campaign.
ED was also a key player in the Environmental Resources Trust (ERT), a free-market environmentalism group. ERT attempted to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when a global activist campaign was set to ban the development of a consumer product, the "chill can," which would keep drinks cold with gases that would accelerate global climate change.
ERT brokered a deal under which the chill can manufacturer would contribute funds, to be invested in carbon offset projects, based on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. When the efforts of other activist groups forced the company to substitute less damaging gases, ERT's scheme collapsed because the chill can no longer did enough damage to fund ERT's adventures.
More recently, ED's Krupp has fallen for the nuclear industry's revival pitch. He's expressed his willingness to re-consider nuclear power as a 'solution' to rising greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.
Finally, the lack of transparency about what ED and DuPont plan as part of their 'partnership' is hardly reassuring. While ED is a U.S.-based organisation, it's pushing for interim nantoechology standards, developed with DuPont, to become a global template.
One can't help but suspect that the U.S. nanotech industry has learned from the experience of its biotech cousins, whose plan to promote genetically engineered organisms in Europe and elsewhere has been stymied by public opposition and health and environmental concerns. To avoid a similar fate, why not enlist a group like ED to help pre-empt the emergence of tougher nanotech standards in Europe, where Greenpeace and others are already campaigning on the issue. (Another non-government organisation, the ETC Group, which has tracked nanotechnology issues far longer than ED, backs a moratorium until more extensive research has been done and standards developed.)
Of course, ED could seek to reassure those of us nervous about nanotech by unveiling the agreement with DuPont. If ED opts for silence and secrecy instead, we are entitled to view the nanotech partnership as just one more example of ED's misguided and potentially damaging opportunism.