What is nanotechnology?
Scratch-resistant varnish, dirt-repellent clothing, self-cleaning windows or new types of food and drugs: in many cases, such innovations are based on nanotechnology. In nanoscience and nanotechnologies, researchers in the fields of physics, chemistry, biotechnology, medicine, informatics and materials science are working and experimenting with single atoms and molecules. One nanometre is one billionth of a metre or one millionth of a millimetre. Nanostructures are, in one dimension at least, smaller than 100 nanometres. In this dimension the properties of materials sometimes undergo radical changes – and these are opening up new technological opportunities.
Opportunities and risks of nanotechnologies
Nanotechnologies are described as the key technology of the 21st century. We have to assume that they will bring dramatic changes to our everyday lives, and will also impact on the environment. There are already over 200 nanoproducts and some 600 nanomaterials or additives on the global market. In Switzerland, too, there are sun creams and toothpastes that contain nanoparticles, and the antibacterial effect in some fabrics and toys is the result of nanotechnology. In the future, drugs, for example, could target cancer cells directly, or materials that are micro-sized insulators but nanosized conductors could be used as efficient energy carriers. It seems that the potential applications are boundless. The International Association of Nanotechnology has estimated that in 2006 global investment in nano research and development will amount to around 4.3 billion US dollars. So naturally, “nano” has also become a good selling point. But just because it says “nano” on the label (as with the “iPod Nano”, or “Nano-Magic” household spray), it does not necessarily mean that there is actually any “nano” inside.
But at the same time, there are also some products that contain nano-sized substances but do not specifically declare them. Regulations about handling nanoparticles still have to be formulated. In Switzerland, the FOPH and the FOEN are developing an “Action plan on synthetic nanoparticles 2006 – 2009”. There is an urgent need for this, because toxicological studies on synthetically produced nanoparticles have indicated possible health risks. What may be harmless as a microparticle (one millionth of a metre in size) may have serious effects on human beings and the environment as a nanoparticle. Researchers, industrialists, government agencies and insurers are, however, unanimous: much more research has to be done in the nanoscience and nanotechnology fields on the possible toxicity of certain nanoparticles and the consequent potential risks for human beings and the environment.
Why hold a TA-SWISS publifocus on “Nanotechnologies and what they mean for health and the environment”?
Nanotechnological developments have the potential to change key areas of life in our society over the coming years and decades. This will also impact on ecological systems. As yet, there is little public awareness about nanotechnologies. In Switzerland, too, it is only recently that a coordinated approach has been initiated to takle questions of regulation. Political groups are paying close attention to the technical developments. Studies help to weigh up the opportunities and risks. Any legislation that may be necessary, however, must also take the views of the population into account. How do so-called “laypersons” perceive the nanotech debate? Where do citizens see opportunities for themselves, their health and the environment? And where do the possible risks lie? Does nanoresearch cross ethical boundaries? Is there a need for regulation or a standardised declaration? These are questions that TA-SWISS wanted to discuss with randomly selected citizen groups. Publifocus events are to be held in all parts of the country during September 2006.
Aims of the publifocus
The aims of the discussions are
- To find out from those taking part what their initial views are on the acceptability and desirability of nanotechnologies, what reservations they have about them, and other open questions.
- To demonstrate how the use of nanomaterials and the possible social and economic impact of the new technologies are being assessed by “laypersons” who have some knowledge of the subject.
The participants’ views – the results of the publifocus events, that is – are compiled into a report. This will be published towards the end of 2006 with the aim of informing interested members of the public – and members of parliament, as it is they who will have to decide whether there is likely to be any need for legislation as a result of developments in nanoscience and nanotechnology and their applications.
No recommendations are made on the basis of publifocus events. They do, however, give some idea of the views of the publifocus participants, showing where there are areas of conflict.
- Literature and Internet research is used as a basis to determine the state of nanotechnological development and initiate the debate on the opportunities and risks. An abridged version is set out in an information brochure.
- Interested members of civil society from all parts of the country are sought out and invited to attend the publifocus events in the form of moderated evening debates.
- A record is made of the discussions at the five or so publifocus events and compiled in a final report.
- The Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences Winterthur (ZHW) will be actively supporting the project. A widely based group of experts from the fields of politics, research, science, business, society, the media and NGOs will be providing critical support for the project.
Project start: autumn 2005 | completion: December 2006
12.07.06 publifocus Nanotechnologien: Chancen und Risiken frühzeitig diskutieren (30 KB)
12.07.06 publifocus sur les nanotechnologies: débattre à temps de leurs avantages et de leurs risques (32 KB)
12.07.06 publifocus sulle nanotecnologie: Discussione tempestiva sulle
opportunità e sui rischi (21 KB)
11.12.06 Lay thinking about nanotechnologies and what follows from it (28 KB)
08.09.06 Know Your Nano! (511 KB)
Kleine Teilchen mit grosser Zukunft: Chancen und Risiken der Nanotechnologie
Kleiner Kanton - grosse Zukunft. Nanotechnologie: Aufbruch für den Industriekanton Glarus? Aula Kantonsschule Glarus
Dr Sergio Bellucci, Managing Director TA-SWISS, Ergebnisse publifocus «Nanotechnologien»
Dr Michael Riediker, Institut de Santé au Travail, Université de Lausanne, Was ist Nanotechnologie?
Samuel Enggist, Wirtschaftsförderung des Kantons Glarus
aNR Dr Johannes Randegger, Novartis International AG, Basel, Chancen und Zukunftsperspektiven der Nanotechnologie aus der Sicht der Pharmaindustrie
Ständerat Dr Fridolin Schiesser
Moderation: Fridolin Hauser
Les citoyens et les nanotechnologies
Nanotechnology: Opportunities and risks for the environment
Chances and risks of nanotechnology, Panel discussion, ETHZ Hönggerberg
with Andreas Bachmann, National counciller Ruth Genner, Hans Näf, Bühler Partec GmbH, Prof. Viola Vogel, ETHZ. Moderation: Barbara Reye, scientific journalist Tages-Anzeiger
Sergio Bellucci, director of TA-SWISS, results of the publifocus «Nanotechnologies»
In collaboration with Tages-Anzeiger and ETH Zurich.
Meeting for members of Parliaments and the media
Nanotechnologies – the people's view of risks and chances
Speakers (slides in German and French only)
Fulvio Caccia, President of the TA-SWISS Steering Committee
Philipp Heitz, President of the supervisory group
Michael Emmenegger, TA-SWISS, project supervisor
Torsten Fleischer, ITAS, Karlsruhe
Steffen Wengert, Federal Office of Public Health
- Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH)
- Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN)
- Zurich University of Applied Sciences Winterthur (ZHW)
- Centre for Technology Assessment (TA-SWISS)
- Prof. Philipp U. Heitz, Member of the TA-SWISS Steering Committee, Au/ZH (chairman of the supervisory group)
- Prof. Dr Ueli Aebi, Member of the TA-SWISS Steering Committee, structural biologist, NCCR Nanoscale Science, Biozentrum, University of Basel
- Dr Sergio Bellucci, Managing Director, Centre for Technology Assessment (TA-SWISS), Bern
- Dr Stefan Durrer, Department of Chemicals and Labour, State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (seco), Bern/Zurich
- Dr Thomas Epprecht, Risk Engineering Services, Swiss Re, Zurich
- Prof. Dr Peter Gehr, Director, Institute of Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine of the University of Bern
- Brigit Hofer, Economic Policy/Sustainability, COOP Switzerland, Basel
- Prof. Dr Georg Karlaganis, Head of Substances, Soil, Biotechnology Division, Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Bern
- Dr Hans G. Kastenholz, Head of Innovation and Technical Analysis, Technology and Society Laboratory, Empa, St Gall
- Alain Kaufmann, Member of the TA-SWISS Steering Committee, Director of Interface Sciences - Société, University of Lausanne
- Prof. Heinrich Kuhn, Head of Competence Centre for Safety and Risk Prevention (KSR), Zurich University of Applied Sciences Winterthur (ZHW), Winterthur
- Dr Monika Kurath, Scientist/PostDoc, Collegium Helveticum Federal Institute of Technology (FIT) Zurich and Programme for Scientific Research/Sociology at the University of Basel
- Christa Markwalder Bär, FDP Member of the National Council, Burgdorf
- Christian Pohl, network for transdisciplinarity in sciences and humanities (td-net), Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences (scnat), Bern
- Dr Klaus Peter Rippe, Managing Director, Ethik im Diskurs GmbH, Zurich
- Urs Spahr, Biological Safety Section, Biomedicine Division, Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), Bern
- Christof Studer, Industrial Chemicals Section, Substances, Soil, Biotechnology Division, Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Bern
- Barbara Vonarburg, Editorial Manager, “Wissen”, Tages-Anzeiger, Zurich
- Josianne Walpen, Project Manager, Food/Cosmetics Division, Foundation for Consumer Protection, Bern
- Steffen Wengert, Head of Commercial Materials Section, Chemicals Division, Consumer Protection Directorate, Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), Bern
- Dr Herbert Cerutti, Scientific journalist, editor of information brochure
- Lucienne Rey, Texterey, recorder of publifocus events and editor of final report
Vivid introduction to the Nano-World.
Nanotechnology homepage of the European Commission
Opportunities and risks of nanotechnologies
Critical reports on nanotechnology from the Canadian NGO (see Publications)
Project of the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC) on nanotechnology
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