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July 31, 2009 / or4green

Nanotech and OR Ethics



Nanotechnology is the creation of functional materials, devices, and systems through control of matter on the nanometer (1 to 100+ nm) length scale and the exploitation of novel properties and phenomena developed at that scale. — source: Los Alamos National Labs

Manipulating atoms and molecules on the scale of a billionth of a meter, nanotechnology has found myriad applications including in paints, sports apparel, sun-block, computer CPUs, and solar cells. The list is growing and large amounts of funding from government and the private sector have been going to nanotech. Its potential to help society is being trumpeted including targeted medicine delivery within the body, air pollutant traps, and super-efficient computers. Nanotechnology can be an important means of ensuring sustainability; solar cells and energy efficient electronics are just two of many examples.

But there are concerns. A number of studies about potential health and environmental risks associated with nanomaterials have been conducted, are underway or are being planned. An article in the July/Aug 2009 issue of E/The Environmental Magazine describes several of these studies. It also mentions that US funding for nanotech is $1.5 billion in 2009 with about 17% of that for risk-assessment work (seemingly a good opportunity for OR to contribute). So far the results from the studies are mixed but some indicate that exposure can be harmful, especially on the production side.

One study, based at Rice University (where Nobel prizes were earned for foundational work in the field) will tag nanoparticles to track their paths through the environment, such as along waste streams. It will also explore how they are affected by fungi, bacteria, etc. that they encounter. One of the project leads, Pedro Alvarez, put the proper perspective on nanotechnology, describing it as being:

…full of initially promising qualities, but you have to consider the potential for environmental damage. For example, look at DDT. Hans Mueller won the Nobel Prize in 1948 for using DDT to fight malaria, but now we know the environmental damage impact.

Asbestos, another wonder material that turned out to be dangerous, is also mentioned frequently in precautionary talk about nanotechnology. (More information about the Rice study can be found here.)

Nanotech and OR Ethics
Now consider an OR analyst working on an application that involves nanotech materials. It could be the design of a product such as a food container. The problem formulation leads to a solution that calls for nanomaterials because of their great properties. The analyst notes that the potential dangers are not considered in the formulation at all. This is partly because the dangers are not well understood. But the analyst is aware of some of the studies mentioned above, understanding they are inconclusive yet knowing the history of other substances like asbestos.

So what is the OR analyst to do in this situation? Well, if an OR code of ethics such as JP Brans’ “Oath of Prometheus” became widely adopted, then it would be clear what to do. That oath reads in part:

As a decision-maker, I commit myself to take into account not only my own objectives but also the social, economic and ecological dimensions of the problems.

As a consultant or an analyst, I commit myself to convince the decision-makers to adopt a fair ethical behaviour and to assist them to meet their goals within the limits of sustainable development. I will feel myself free to refuse to provide information or tools, which to my opinion, could bring into danger the social welfare of mankind and the ecological future of Earth.

A solution involving nanotechnology could be safe and sustainable. But given current uncertainty surrounding nanotech’s health risks, the large negative impacts that could occur, and the bad track record with other earlier wonder materials and substances, the analyst should urge some very careful reflection. A reassessment of the formulation to incorporate the dangers would be in order. The risks are somewhat unknown, but are not implausible, so heed of the precautionary principle must be taken.

Here are links to more information, not necessarily representative of the entire field and this issue (additional links welcome):

Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, Rice University

Nanoscience and Technology at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition Nanotech Report and Survey

Special Issue of Journal of Industrial Ecology on Nanotechnology

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