In an article a few weeks ago, I noted the way the synthetic particle cerium oxide had a tendency to stick around in incinerators, seeming indestructible. While worrying, this was not an immediate concern because cerium oxide is non-toxic, though it did suggest the need for more rigorous testing of all the chemicals we are putting into products – especially nano-scale synthetics that might pose a particular clean-up problem.
Well, research from Trinity College in Dublin might show that we’re already behind the curve on this. You can read the phys.org article on it here. Basically, the research showed that exposure carbon-based and silicon-based nanotechnology, including carbon nanotubes, can lead to rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune diseases, as established by tests on human respiratory cells and on mice.
So, we now know that much of the new nanotechnology being developed may have serious health impacts. What we don’t know is where all the particles are going to end up or how easy or difficult it might be to clean it all up. Since many of the chemicals being developed are proprietary and treated as corporate secrets, there’s no guarantee that we’ll know what the new materials might be used in.
As the Guardian notes here, nanotechnology exists in a gaping hole in the regulatory framework, and companies are taking full advantage of the fact. Analysis of potential risks is virtually nonexistent. The question is, can university research money going to studies like that from Trinity College in Dublin keep up with the research and development money in the private sector. I think we know what the answer is.
We live in a dynamic world where technology changes remarkably quickly. Unfortunately, our legal framework is often decades if not centuries behind the times. While, thanks to studies like the one from Nanomedicine, we see the lag when it comes to nanotechnology, the same situation is even more apparent when it comes to financial technology. Regulations were woefully unprepared for the economic meltdown in 2008 and remain unprepared for it. The laws were also unprepared for the current European debt crisis, with proposed solutions all ad-hoc. The very method by which we create law was meant for a different time, and it is unable to keep up with the rapid changes that are taking place.
What’s the solution? I have no idea, though maybe we’d better try any new ideas of how to legislate and govern out in fiction before we put them to use in the real world. It’s amazing how quickly the need to construct a plot will reveal the weaknesses in a supposedly perfect system. I think plenty of writers have foreseen the pitfalls of nanotechnology, though the financial mess we find ourselves in defies all imagination.