Nanotechnologists are determined not to head down the path well trodden by ill-fated GM proponents.

Nanotechnologists are determined not to head down the path well trodden by ill-fated GM proponents. Rather than fighting environmental pressure groups, they agreed at a meeting of European industry leaders, it might be wiser to join them.

Greenpeace made an unprecedented appearance at this year’s NanoTrends meeting in Munich, Germany. Not campaigning on the doorstep, but speaking to delegates at this annual European nanotechnology business congress. Last year, Greenpeace issued its report Future Technologies, Today’s Choices to a whirlwind of publicity. The report outlines a number of concerns over risks posed by nanotechnology to human health and the environment.

There was little support at the meeting for the Greenpeace call for a moratorium on the use of nanoparticles that might be released into the environment.

You can’t prove a risk doesn’t exist, says Harry Heinzelmann of the Centre Suisse d’Electronic et de Microtechnique (CSEM), Neuchatel, Switzerland. ’And that’s exactly the loophole,’ he told Chemistry World. ’These people go in there and say "so you don’t know, so it’s risky"’.

Heinzelmann, head of the CSEM Division of Nanotechnology and Life Sciences, fears that focusing on possible risks could eclipse the benefits. Greenpeace wants a moratorium on the use of TiO 2 nanoparticles in sunscreen, but where do environmental risks stand with regard to the protection these creams offer against skin cancer, he asked Greenpeace chief scientific adviser, Douglas Parr.

The Greenpeace position is ’not a simple risk/benefit thing’, says Parr. ’There are benefits to nanotechnology,’ he wisely told his nanotech audience. ’The question for me is a much bigger one than I think the nanoparticle discussion is, which is how do we steer nanotechnology in that direction?’

Heinzelmann was unimpressed. ’These Greenpeace guys, they know how to communicate,’ he grumbled, noting how his question had been roundly sidestepped. Nevertheless, he and fellow delegates agree that including such organisations is essential and that industry must keep close tabs on the environmental debate. ’The potential for GM II is definitely on the cards,’ warned one.

Bea Perks