Environmental Defense Dances With DuPont On Nanotechnology

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In October 2005 DuPont and Environmental Defense (ED) announced a "partnership" with DuPont to "define a systematic and disciplined process that can be used to identify, manage and reduce potential health, safety and environmental risks of nano-scale materials across all lifecycle stages. This framework will then be pilot-tested on specific nano-scale materials or applications of commercial interest to DuPont." [1]

In its media release, ED's Fred Krupp, stated that its "work to develop this partnership was supported in part by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a partnership of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars." [2]

What is the partnership all about?

When DuPont and ED announced their "partnership" in October they provided only sketchy details on what exactly it would encompass. There were no copies of the detailed partnership agreement between the two or even a summary of its key elements.

The partnership, the two groups identical media releases stated, "will begin to put into action the words of DuPont Chairman and CEO Chad Holliday and Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp in the June 14, 2005 edition of the Wall Street Journal". [3]

In that column of just over 700 words the two acknowledged there were uncertainties about the possible impacts of nanotechnologies but cautioned that there was a need for and benefits for "thoughtful regulatory standards." "Could the novel properties that make nanoparticles so promising affect human health and ecosystems in a different way than more familiar larger particles? These and other questions must be answered. The hype surrounding nanotech drowns out the need for sound, disciplined research and commercialization guided by thoughtful regulatory standards," they wrote.

Citing examples of technologies - such as DDT, leaded petrol and CFC's - where the environmental and social impacts have become apparent after they have been sold on a massive scale, Krupp and Halliday wrote. "An early and open examination of the potential risks of a new product or technology is not just good common sense -- it’s good business strategy," they wrote. [4]

In their view the role of a colloboration aimes to reduce "potential liability and market risks" by involving academics, companies and non-government organisations in determining "what testing is necessary for new nanoproducts."

More importantly for DuPont is that it sees the scope for EDF helping develop global interim standards that would enable it to proceed with proceeding with nanotech products before regulatory standards are developed. "A collaborative effort could set interim standards for nanotechnology around the world while regulations are under development," they wrote. [5]

While Krupp and Halliday complained that the U.S. government only spends four percent of its current nantech budget assessing the social and environmental risks of the technology, a proportion, they wrote, which "becomes vanishingly small when you factor in private investment."

"Government spending on nanotechnology should be reprioritized so that approximately 10% goes to this purpose. Compared to the estimated $1 trillion market for nanotechnology, this would be a wise insurance policy on such a high-potential investment," they argued.

While Krupp and Halliday cite the statistics to argue for greater public expenditure on the potential impacts of nantoech, they made no comment on how they also reveal how little priority the nantoech corporations attach to assessing the risks of their developments. If the benefits are so great, why is it that the companies that stand to benefit so much are prepared to spend a lot less than four percent of their budgets on the potential impacts of the technology?

"Can we reap the benefits while minimizing the risks? We believe we can. The key steps are identifying and addressing the risks," they conclude.

"Current regulations, designed for a world before nanotechnology, should be reassessed and changed as needed to account for the novel properties of nanomaterials. Business and government may need new approaches to make sure workers, consumers, the public and the environment are adequately protected," they conclude.

However, neither ED or DuPont eloborated on what regulations "should be reassessed and changed" or what they mean by "new approaches" to ensure the protection of the public.

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