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Experts call for more debate on pros, cons of Nanotechnology

By Nawab Khan

BRUSSELS, April 28 (KUNA) -- An international experts' committee is calling for a balanced and transparent public debate on Nanotechnologies which has raised many expectations in the fields of medicine and energy but also fears and anxieties because its benefits and harms remain largely unknown.
Nanotechnology could alleviate world hunger, clean the environment, cure cancer, guarantee longer life, but also produce super-weapons of immense horror and destruuction.
The Working Group on the Ethics of Nanotechnologies which is part of UNESCO's World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) is meeting in Brussels Wednesday and Thursday to examine the ethical dimension of Nanotechnolgies.
Alain Pompidou, President of COMEST, told a press conference here Wednesday that the body is composed of 18 members from all over the world representing different disciplines.
"We have the same rationale in terms of ethical approach. We are discussing the issue with scientists, engineers and firms with economical aspects," he said. John Crowley, chief of UNESCO Division of Ethics of Science and Technologies , speaking at the press conference explained the aims of the meeting and issues and problems attached with Nanotechnology.
He said the objective of the 2-day gathering is to shape the work of COMEST itself and discuss issues which are fast-changing , politically sensitive and publicly visible. Nanotechnolgies means the range of engineering which involve manipulation of matter at the scale of a nanometer which is one billionth of a meter or about the hundredth of a diameter of a normal human hair.
Nanometer existed in nature but manufacturing nano material is a set of new advances in science and technology.
However, the rapid pace of development in Nanotechnolgoies is creating difficulties in the indentification of and response to potential impacts, especially long term impacts.
Secondly, the science and technology are being driven by the wrong kind of interests, not in interest of humanity but in particular military interests, noted Crowley.
The military is the main supporters of nano research in many parts of the world especially in the US.
"There is a concern that the scientific research might be distorted by the search for specific military applications that might serve as a distraction from the focus of achieving the Millennium Development goals and putting science to work for the benefit of humankind as a whole," warned the UNESCO official.
The third concern is that developing countries might be left behind by rapid new developments in science which might be regarded from the ethical point of view as unacceptable.
The fourth concern is risk-management of using nano-materials. They are in the shops and one might buy them without knowing it.
Crowley cited the example of self-cleaning concrete which is used in buildings. It has a special concrete which has a coating which uses sunlight to generate chemical processes that eliminate dirt from the surface.
"But are these particles dangerous? How does this concrete age over time? Will we discover in twenty years time that 150,000 thousand people have some as yet unknown form of cancer because of these nanomaterials," he asked.
Nanosilver are also used in anti-odour socks. Nanosilver is a very powerful biocite, it kills bacteria, a property that silver in its normal form does not have. But the silver washes out over time and goes down the drain.
"What are the implications? It kills the bacteria that makes your feet smell but what else it is killing once it goes down the drain? Does it end up in drinking water? If so what are the implications? Nano particles are so small that they escape the conventional filters," stated Crowley.
"I am not saying that this will happen but the concern is about a technology moving forward before there has been an opportunity to do a systematic study of possible impacts, " he said. There are other new issues that relate to the way Nanotechnology is tending to converge with other technologies.
He mentioned that the interface between nanotechnolgy and biotechnology might potentially reengineer life. "You can imagine how sensitive that issue is," he noted. The convergence between nanotechnologies and information technologies makes it possible to imagine entirely new forms of control of the movements of things and people and animals. There is a lot going about for COMEST to reflect about and then report to UNESCO which will invite member states to reflect what they should do about it, he said.
"Do we need new legislation, do we need new educational programmes to raise awareness," he asked.
Khalid Al-Ali a professor from Qatar and member of COMEST, said "we are looking at the global view of things regarind Nanotechnology." "Member states are there to revise anything to make sure that this is not against any religion" said the Qatari researcher. Tafeeda Jarbawi from Palestine, also a member of COMEST, said we look at religion from cultural point of view and how it effects some of the debate that is going on; like how the religious people think of this technology. (end) nk.gta KUNA 281002 Apr 11NNNN