PEEK

Excuse me, are those nanoparticles in your pants?

Heather Gehlert: We're living in a synthetic world...
Most people probably don't stop to think about nanotechnology when they purchase a new pair of pants or a bottle of sunscreen. But, more and more, consumer products like this hit the shelves touting a promise of making our lives easier. Who wouldn't want a pair of stain-resistant pants that even the darkest Merlot can't penetrate? Who wouldn't want sunscreen with all of the protection and none of the annoying white spackle?

Beyond offering consumer conveniences, nanotechnology holds the possibility of life-saving medical advances in a world overwhelmed by deadly diseases; it hints at clean energy alternatives that give us hope in the face of melting polar ice caps.

But -- and this is a really large but -- nanotech is a science in its infancy. For all we know, its costs could someday be as significant as its benefits. The fact is, sometimes the experts are wrong. And sometimes they just don't know.

That's not just the case with nanotech, but nanotech is unique because it's the science that governs the ultra small. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter -- small enough to pass the blood-brain barrier. Particles behave differently at such small sizes. There is, no doubt, risk in that. The question is, who's monitoring it?

Unfortunately, hardly anyone. And why should they be? The public isn't making a fuss or even noticing because the public isn't in on the conversation. Until now.

Former NY Times technology columnist Denise Caruso has just finished a new book called Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet, which makes the technical world accessible and understandable to the average non-scientific person. Her book doesn't talk only about nanotech; and it isn't a rant either. Denise isn't telling people what food to eat or what products to buy. She is, however, pointing out a reality.

Already more than half of the planet's biomass has been engineered with recombinant DNA. Living organisms are having their genes manipulated and then reproducing -- all in the near absence of regulations or oversight.

Intervention exposes this serious shortfall in the regulation of new technologies such as genomics and nanotech and offers suggestions about how to improve oversight and make the risk assessment process more democratic and transparent to the public. It acknowledges the risks inherent in technology and innovation, and good thing, because I don't see many other people doing that. The current administration certainly isn't because that could be bad for business. After all, scientific uncertainty and public skepticism tie up capital.
Heather Gehlert is a managing editor at AlterNet.
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