Social and Ethical Issues of Different Nanoproducts and Nanoprocesses

 Journal of the International Organization for Standartization ISO Focus, Volume 4, No. 4, April 2007, p.40-42

By Dr Gregor Wolbring

This is the Word Document version without the layout and pictures of the original, published PDF.

Nanotechnology has huge positive potential, however bringing the positive potential to fruition depends on the right social environment and foresight to identify societal and other problems, and the willingness by international and national bodies to address them.

Many nano-taxonomies exist which highlight numerous fields, processes and products (1) An evaluation of nano as a whole is difficult, if not impossible. Every nano field, process and product has to be evaluated differently as each poses distinct challenges and rewards and each has a unique dynamic, around which a positive could turn negative and a negative could be eliminated and turned to a positive.

Nano evaluations become even more multifaceted if one takes into account that different nano- fields, processes and products allow for the interaction and convergence with other technologies and sciences (2)

Numerous lists of anticipated Nano products exist (3;4). Applications and products are envisioned in areas such as the environment, energy, water, military applications, globalization, agriculture, and health (e.g., more efficient diagnostics and genetic testing, cognitive enhancement; life extension, and enhancing human performance in general) (5). The social group of transhumanists (6)  hopes for extreme life extension to the level of “immortality”, and morphological (7), and genomic freedom (8)..

A recent survey (9) concluded that the top 10 nanotechnology applications for development  are:

The UN Millennium Project’s Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation identifies nanotechnology as an important tool for addressing poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals.(10)

Medicine is, in most developed countries, the largest or second largest nanotechnology application. A variety of Nanomedicine taxonomies (11;12) and nanomedicine roadmaps  exist (13) (14) (15) and numerous applications are envisioned, in development, or already in use (13-16)
So what to do, for all to benefit?

How is one to deal with the numerous nano fields, processes and products?
One way is to highlight general societal and ethical problems that all or most of the nano fields, processes and products face. 

Impacts of Nanotechnology in General (17)

Science and technology, including nanotechnology use, research, and development, embody and shape the perspectives; purposes;prejudices; particular objectives; and cultural, economical, ethical, moral, spiritual, and political frameworks of different social groups and society at large. Nanotechnology influences, and is influenced by, a variety of discourses and area of actions.


Discourses (17):
•           Human security
•           Religion, faith, traditional knowledge, theology
•           Biodiversity
•           Inequity
•           Ethics
•           Law
•           Raising the acceptance level for a given technology
•           Language
•           Self perception and identity (body politics)
•           Interpreting international treaties
•           Governance
•           Evaluation, measuring, analysis, and outcome tools
•           Trade

Areas of Action (17):
•           Nanotechnology/NBICS for development
•           The UN Millennium Development Goals
•           Global medical and social health
•           Accessibility
•           Law
•           Water and sanitation
•           Disaster management
•           Weapons/war
•           Ethics/philosophy
•           Social science/anthropology
•           Community
•           Networking

To highlight a few areas:

Personal, Worker Safety, Environmental, and Ecosystem Safety (17):  Every product and process enabled by the different areas of nanotechnology and the converging of nano with other technologies will affect everyone if the products are environmentally and medically health wise unsafe.  Some efforts are underway to look and deal with this type of safety.(18-20)


Human Security: (17;21):  The governance of and debate around  nanotechnology and the converging of nano with other technologies impacts on human security which entails according to the Commission for human security (22) Economic Security; Food Security; Health Security; Environmental Security, Personal Security, Community Security; Political Security; Freedom from Fear; and Freedom from Want.
Here the new ISO/TC 223, Societal security can be of value in terms of addressing emergency preparedness and management when natural disaster strikes.  Health security is addressed to some degree by ISO’s work on medical devices and food security by the ISO 22000 series on food safety management systems. 
Regarding environmental standards, the ISO 14000 environmental management standards the work of ISO/TC 207, Environmental management has developed standards for environmental management systems, environmental auditing and performance evaluation, product labeling, life cycle assessment, greenhouse gas reporting and others which can facilitate better environmental management practices to help ensure environmental security. 


“Human security is concerned with safeguarding and expanding people’s vital freedoms. It requires both shielding people from acute threats and empowering people to take charge of their own lives. Needed are integrated policies that focus on people’s survival, livelihood and dignity, during downturns as well as in prosperity”(22).

Furthermore, nanotechnology and the converging of nano with other technologies is increasingly leading to products which pose new and unique challenges to human security. The increased ability of nano and other science and technology R&D products to modify the appearance and functioning of the human body and the bodies of other species beyond existing norms and species-typical boundaries leads to a changed understanding of oneself, one’s body, and one’s relationship with others of one’s species, other species and one’s environment. One might be forced to enhance ones body beyond the species typical boundaries in order to obtain a job, income and other essentials. One might be seen as deficient by others if one does not obtain the bodily enhancements.  This may affect an individual’s sense of self and lower the persons self esteem. (21

Social Cohesion (23)
Until now, introduction of inventions have been slow enough to allow society to integrate new science and technology realities into their social fabric and social contract. The speed of these cycles has been steadily increasing, however, allowing less time to evaluate how new science and technology products affect social cohesion and the social contract, and how negative impacts can be mitigated and positive impacts enhanced. Nanotechnology and the converging of nano with other technologies impacts nearly all of the indicators used to measure social cohesion and social wellbeing.
It will be interesting to see whether ISO 26000 would set a model that could be followed to address human security, social cohesion and other societal issues.
Such approach might prove to be helpful to address products and processes enabled by the different areas of nanotechnology and the converging of nano with other technologies, which might be applied in fields where significant societal concerns exist (e.g. the military, surveillance and security fields), helping to increase the potentially positive and to decrease the potentially negative societal impact of nanotechnology .

Nanoformulated and Atomic Commodities: 
Moving from nature-based commodities (i.e., copper, rubber) towards nano-formulated commodities, towards atomic commodities (molecular manufacturing) must have an impact on the demand and export capabilities for nature-based commodities, especially, from low income countries as it will change the commodity market and, in the end, the nature of trade.(24) Many positive and negative potential, and the ethical and social issues of molecular manufacturing can be found on the webpage of the Center for responsible Nanotechnology. Now many say that molecular manufacturing will not happen soon. However, research is funded in this area. Furthermore even if molecular manufacturing is not happening, the change in property of nanoformulated commodities still will change the commodity market. 

 If the previously highlighted top 10 nanotechnology applications for development (25) are to be of any use it is evident that the processes, productions and research have to happen also in low income countries and not only in high income countries. There are two initiatives which try to find ways to increase innovation and affordable production and products in low income countries.  Cambia(26)  developed the Biological Innovation for Open Society (BiOS) to tackle the problem of lack of production and research. (27) They propose a protected commons(28) to modify the patent concept which in their eyes allows for an increase in innovation especially in low income countries.
The World Health Assembly adopted a resolution last May (WHA59.24) (10) creating a working group to develop a global strategy on intellectual property, health research and development, and new medicines for diseases that especially affect developing countries.(29)

The Cambia approach and the World Health Assembly resolution apply to many nano products and processes. 



This article highlights only a few ethical and social issues. Nanotechnology alone and in convergence with other sciences and technologies can only reach its full potential with changes in innovation and governance and distribution behaviours.
The negative implications of nanotechnologies such as military products(30), unsafe nano products, innovation and distribution unbalance, and threats to human security can best be tackled with an open transparent process and public debate. 
Across all regions of the world; international bodies must initiate the debate now.  All countries have to involve their educational institutions and the public for the scientific, legal, economic, ethical, and social evaluation of nanotechnology and its convergence with other technologies..

An online version of the paper with Web links, in text reference numbering and references can be found at:
Dr. Gregor Wolbring is a biochemist, bioethicist, governance of science and technology and ability studies scholar, and health policy researcher at the University of Calgary. He is among others a member of the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University; a member  of the Canadian Advisory Committees for ISO/TC 229, Nanotechnologies, as well as on the editorial team for the Nanotechnology for Development portal of the Development Gateway Foundation; Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People's International; and member of the Executive of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.
He publishes the Bioethics, Culture and Disability website, the biweekly column The Choice is Yours: and a blog on new and emerging technologies at



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    30.   Wolbring, G, NBICS and Military Products,, 2007., webpage