Essay: Nanotechnology as an Environmental Issue
Nanotechnology promises a world of benefits that can change our everyday lives. But using technology that operates at nano-scales can also pose environmental risks that might change the way we as humans interact with our environment and our world. To understand this risk, we need to take a look at how nanotechnology currently functions, how it might work in the future, and the risks that this poses to our environment as this technology becomes increasingly widespread. In so doing, we will see that while there are many advantages to nanotechnology, there are also risks, and these risks can pose serious challenges as we move forward into a nanotechnology-dominated future.
In today’s popular culture nanotechnology is still the stuff of science fiction, and there have been novels, movies, and TV shows that imagine clouds of invisible nanobots accomplishing amazing feats of construction and even performing health care tasks.
On one cable TV science fiction drama, nanobots convey a type of immortality by maintaining bodies in peak physical condition no matter the damage inflicted by injury or disease. In the popular imagination, nanotechnology is essentially an invisible miracle, performing near-supernatural feats.
However, in the real world, nanotechnology is a little different. So far, nanotechnology has not achieved the grandiose vision that science fiction has envisioned for it. Most current nanotechnology is conceptual and has not yet been applied to produce large-scale real-world results. However, as the technology continues to proliferate, certain risks will become apparent, and it will be up to those who manufacture and utilize these technologies to ensure that they are used to promote positive results and minimize the risks that they can bring with them.
The first of these risks is nanopollution. The materials used to make nanotechnology are generally considered safe, but if it should turn out that some of the materials in nanotechnology, particularly self-replicating nanotechnology turn out to be harmful to the environment, this can produce a situation where nanotechnology itself becomes a pollutant. One of the challenges with nanoparticles is that the properties at small scales do not always mirror those of the substance at the macro level. As a result, the potential toxicity or environmental damage caused by these particles may not be easy to anticipate before the nanoparticles are already in the environment.
The second impact risk of nanotechnology involves its use in the medical field. Since the toxicity of nano-substances isn’t clear, there is the risk that these technologies could impact human health, both when used intentionally for medical purposes and when accidentally consumed as a result of their presence in the surrounding environment. As a result, there is now an entire field called nanotoxicology which examines the potential toxic effects of nanotechnology. So far, several different effects have been discovered. First, nanoparticles can accumulate in organs, potentially blocking vital passages or interfering with the function of the organs. Second, nanoparticles might adsorb macromolecules within the body, which can impact how the nanoparticles interact with and are recognized by cells in the body.
A third and less recognized impact is a social one. Some fear that the benefits of nanotechnology will not be evenly distributed across barriers of race, class, and nationality.
What this means is that those who have money or live in more developed countries will have better access to the benefits of this technology, and consequently might experience longer lifespans, better health, and a cleaner environment than those who do not. Therefore, the differential access could unfairly prevent generations of people outside of the privileged areas from achieving the same levels as those with access to this technology. Over time, these differences will only accelerate, potentially leading to a world where an over-class uses their advantages to control the underclass in ways we have not seen since the days of slavery.
Overall, most technologists believe that nanotechnology will change the world for the better. Its advantages are widely believed to outweigh the disadvantages. However, because there are so many unknowns, the most prudent path is to move forward cautiously and to carefully consider all of the risks and not just the rewards the nanotechnology will bring. Only by doing so can we guarantee a full, fair, and safe future for everyone on Earth for generations to come.
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