ETHICAL DILEMMAS OF NANOTECHNOLOGY
INNOVATION OF NANOTECHNOLOGY
In the ever advancing scientific future, engineers play a vital role in producing many consumer goods, such as electronics, cosmetics, and medicine. However, one branch of technology that most people do not think about is that of nanotechnology. According to nano.gov, nanotechnology is "science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers" . The importance of this kind of technology is using smaller particles to do the same job as its larger counterparts, thus using less material and having a slightly smaller cost . In the world today, nanotechnology is increasing in popularity, being used in products such as sunscreen, moisturizers, pregnancy tests, and even in tennis balls . As these advancements take place, chemical engineers are working hard to make even more developments to the world today.
Chemical engineers strive to follow their ethics code, which includes faithful service to employers, increasing the success rate in the engineering profession, and enhancing life for everyone through knowledge of engineering . However, not all engineers think this way, and some would rather benefit as an individual, or lie about certain codes that would keep their company of employment safe from being shut down, or being the headlines in a scandal. One such example would include the case of "The Aberdeen Three", where three chemical engineers at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland disposed of toxic wastes. Not only is disposing of toxic waste a desecration of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, but these three engineers put the public welfare in danger, just because they could not dispose of the waste the proper way . Because of the senseless moves these engineers made, they were tried and convicted, which not only caused them to lose their jobs, but they also lost their reputations as credible engineers. If I wish to keep my career in the future, I shall not follow the actions of the Aberdeen Three in the case that they do not follow the codes of chemical engineers. It is of great importance that engineers follow the different codes thoroughly to keep not only everyone safe, but to keep the honor of an engineers responsibility over any tasks at hand.
As with any decision made, the choice to continue to improve nanotechnology has a bright future, but along the way there may be consequences that prohibit this moving forward. As Joachim Schummer puts in his essay "Cultural Diversity in Nanotechnology Ethics", "If nanotechnology is, like other technologies, a means of improving conditions for a good life, then it does so only with regard to specific aspects of the concept of a good life" . What Schummer reiterates is the fact that a product will have both positive and negative impacts in whatever field it is used for. He also states that not everyone has the same definition of a good life. Some may think that nanotechnology is leading to the downfall of the environment, while others may think that it is the next great idea, and should be used more often. Nanotechnology has become more prominent in studies of recent years, and it has caused many debates as to whether or not these particles are safe for human use, and whether they have positive or negative impacts on the environment. In my situation, I am a chemical engineer working alongside Banana Boat, a popular sunscreen company. We are just about to put a new suntan lotion that includes new kinds of nanoparticles that allow the user to apply once every two days, perfect for beach vacations. The particles stay on the human skin, allowing maximum sun exposure. However, the particles we used were never used in a case where they came in contact with human skin. The corporate head wants to continue with the manufacturing process, even if the sunscreen mixture is unsafe for the public, the environment, or both. The purpose behind engineering this sunscreen is to gain profit, since last quarter was not very successful, and the future of the company will slowly decline into bankruptcy if a new product is not manufactured soon. If this sunscreen gets big with the sunbathers at beaches, or even the general public, corporate heads wish to create an aerosol version that furthers the convenience of the application process. The media department already wrote article after article about this advancement, and we are already getting complaints about the safety of our product. My values as an engineer differ from my values as an employee, so I am stuck on what to do. As an engineer, I know I must keep the public safe at all costs, but as an employee of such a large company, I know any way I try to prohibit the distribution of this product will cost me my job. Now, I have some decisions to make on whether to protect the public and environment, or my career.
With nanotechnology, many people will either agree strongly for its use, but there are organizations and other groups that feel strongly against the thought of living in a technologically advanced future through nano particles. In one such case of Alejandro Aceves Lopez, a robotics researcher at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico City, he received major consequences due to a group's radical hatred toward nanotechnology . As Aceves opened a package, a pipe bomb inside exploded, placed there by an eco-anarchist group called Individuals Tending Towards Savagery . To keep this from happening to anyone else in the nanotechnology field, I would have to, as an engineer, find a way to keep these terrorist groups from wreaking any more havoc. To do this, a possibility would be more research on the topic at hand, where we test the nanoparticles of the product on test subjects to see if it can be introduced inside of the human body through pores, and if it can, if it can damage the internal structures and functions of the body. If more research is done, it will cost Banana Boat more money, but it will follow with both the NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers, as well as the AIChE code of ethics [3,7]. While holding the fulfillment of maintaining the safety of the public, this nanotechnology can begin to be used for the betterment of manufacturing other products, such as moisturizers or hair goods. Environmental impact is another reason for persons to hate the idea of nanotechnology. In 2006, eight different activist groups wished to have legal action taken against the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the use of nanoparticles in different products . Lawsuits against the FDA were filed on the fact that they have taken no steps in order to separate the differences of the nanoparticles from the bulk of the product . With a better way of distributing this vital information to the public, I will be able to fulfill the obligations of Article 3, Section 2, Subsection C of the Code of Ethics for Engineers, which states; "Engineers are encouraged to extend public knowledge and appreciation of engineering and its achievements" . Though the precautions of producing a risky, new manufactured good seem to cost a company a great deal of money, it is for the betterment of not only the environment, but of the human race as a whole.
Can we keep ourselves safe?
In the recent years, scientists have tested the side effects of using nanoparticles in different areas of research, such as the health effects, environmental impacts, and privacy issues. From the research that scientists have done on nanotechnology and nanoparticles, health has been a huge factor into whether or not nanoparticles are safe. I asked my cousin, a current biomedical engineer at Bayer, what she thought of the safety of nanoparticles in topical uses, such as sunscreen. She said "Well, I think it's a pretty good idea. I know there's been controversy over health factors and whatever, but further research will most likely cause nanotechnology to become a part of daily life" . I agree with my cousin to the full extent, and I know that continuing with research, like the research I want to further with the new nanoparticles in Banana Boat's debut sunscreen, will be the only action I, as well as other engineers, can take to improve nanotechnology as a whole. This statement, coming from an engineer who actually works in an establishment that deals with products concerning the public health of citizens, shows that at least one engineer thinks that nanotechnology can surpass the negatives it is seen as now, and become something great. Though the future of nanotechnology could be bright, it does not help that as of currently, nanoparticles have been found to be absorbed in test animals' livers, which show that the same could happen for humans . Not only could it get absorbed into our bodies, but it could be taken in our cells, thus causing a threat to our food chain through bacteria entering our body's cells, and therefore causing health threats similar to that of mercury in fish . As scientists and engineers continue to research the side effects of nanotechnology on our world, they take more possibilities of the negative side effects into account, thus making sure that nanotechnology is safe for our population, as well at the future well-being of the world and its impending citizens.
As we live in an ever advancing world, technology may get to the point where it is more harmful to continue innovating. For example, as engineers create smaller and smaller nanoparticles, ways of creating other technologies on a nano scale will happen. This could be bad for the privacy of everyone, for listening devices could become near invisible, making them easier to plant on other people to listen to private conversations . With the rise of terroristic groups across the world, it is vital that this technology should not be advanced to this point, for every worldly citizen may be put at risk. At this point, engineers must ask themselves if it is smarter to move on to create smaller nanoparticles, or will it just create bigger issues in different areas of technology?
Nanotechnology has been constantly questioned in the manner that asks if it is safe for the environment. As this is the only world we have to live on at the moment, it is of crucial importance that it is preserved and kept in the best shape possible. Therefore, scientists have to make sure that the nanoparticles in sunscreen do not cause any damage to our oceans, or any other areas of environmental impact. However, this proves to be difficult, since not all of the nanoparticles engineered in labs are more toxic that natural particles of the same chemical composition . As noted by Eva Oberd?rster, a professor at Southern Methodist University, the surface coatings of particles as well as other environmental factors, such as UV radiation from the sun, can cause the nanoparticles to behave differently, thus causing research on toxicity of the particles on the environment to be increasingly difficult . With the type of technology that Banana Boat wants to distribute in my situation, I would need toxicity tests on the particles, as this is of vital importance to see if they are biodegradable or not. Biodegradation is not the only environmental that should be worried about in this sunscreen situation, however, for other factors, such as the aerosol sunscreen Banana Boat wishes to produce, play a factor into the environment.
I remember when aerosol sunscreen came onto the market and everyone went haywire to get it over the summer months. I also remember it being more expensive than suntan lotion, even though it did the same job as the lotion. However, not many people take into consideration the potential harm this could do to the environment. In an educational video produced by Linsey Marr, an engineering professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who specializes in air quality engineering, Marr states that "nanoparticles are readily aerosolized in the manufacturing process. They can then be transported thousands of miles in the atmosphere" . These nanoparticles can then combine with other molecules and substances in the air, such as water particles or carbon dioxide, and therefore change the surface chemistry, creating an entirely new substance that may be harmful in situations such as human ingestion or inhalation . If Banana Boat corporation wishes to still produce this ground-breaking sunscreen, then I will be in a situation where I cannot notify my employer of an overrule of my judgement, as stated in the Code of Ethics for Engineers, for my employer will be the one who overrules my judgement. In this case, I will not be able to speak up for the justice of engineering, and I will have a difficult decision to make on whether or not I warn of the harms this aerosol sunscreen will produce.
THE DECISION AT HAND
Not only should I as an engineer worry about the health of the public, but also the health of the environment too, for that will turn into the world that we live in in the future. If this seemingly small product turns into a hazardous waste for the environment, then my duty as a chemical engineer of holding the safety, well-being and prosperity of the public and the environment as one of my biggest concerns will fail, and I as a chemical engineer will fail. With such a dilemma that I am posed against a corporation, it is difficult to discuss the potential harms that the product could harm in future generations, when all the corporation is worried about is economic gain at the moment. I would have to work with other organizations, such as the American Institute of Chemical Engineers to fight the selfish gains that Banana Boat would want. With the help of a larger organization, such as the AIChE, then there is a possibility of Banana Boat withholding the production of the long-lasting sunscreen until further research is held. As one engineer, I would strive to do everything in my power to prohibit Banana Boat from distributing the sunscreen, since I would not know how the nanoparticles would affect the aspects of health, environmental affects and privacy. I would suggest to Banana Boat that further research would be needed in order to successfully put this product on the market.
ADVICE FOR FUTURE ENGINEERS
For future engineers in a similar ethical crisis that I am in, I would suggest that they always research first and act later. If the adequate amount of research was held prior to the distribution of this revolutionary sunscreen, then I would not have been in the situation where I had to choose between keeping my job at Banana Boat and keeping a potentially harmful product on the market so a corporation could have a positive net gain. After reading what other engineers did in situations that proved to be similar to mine, I would choose to do what I think is right, which is taking the product off of distribution trucks and waiting until further research is held. I chose to be an engineer to help future generations toward excellency, whether that be in a technological sense or an environmental and health sense. I urge future engineers to do the same, and do what they think is right. If they choose to follow their specific codes, as well as the overall code of engineers, then so be it. If not, they will without a doubt end up like the Aberdeen Three; they will be jobless and have their engineering careers ruined, as well as spend an ample amount of time in jail. I do not wish to see such great minds behind bars, so I feel that following the ethics codes of all engineers is of vital importance to becoming an engineer.
I believe that corporations are becoming excessively greedy, for they would rather distribute harmful products for a quick net gain instead of taking the time to research and enhance products. In the case of the long-lasting sunscreen, it is of utter importance that I as an engineer try to guide such corporations to the mindset that they must put their buyers first, for if it were not for the buyers, there would be no company, and therefore no net gain. One day, I hope all engineers think this way, for once all engineers think of themselves after they think of others, this world can become truly advanced in all areas of expertise.
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I would like to thank the people who helped me along with writing this essay. Firstly, I would like to thank my roommate, Bea Langer, for letting me work late into the night while she was sleeping. I would also like to thank my good friend Adam Duche, a sophomore mechanical engineering student, for pushing me through the writing process of this essay and giving me ideas on what to write. I would like to give a big acknowledgement to my mother for helping me edit my essay, and checking for grammar issues. If I did not have this help, I would not have had enough content to meet the requirements of this essay, nor would I have had a grammatically correct essay.