Signs Done on Speck

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007

In uncertain times, some lift their arms toward heaven. "Give us a sign!" they plead.

But not ETC Group. The Toronto-based civil society organization, which in recent years has gained a reputation for clever grass-roots campaigns against genetically engineered crops and other wealth-concentrating economic and technological forces (the letters are for erosion, technology, concentration), turned instead to the Internet.

"Give us a sign!" they implored the online world -- a warning sign, that is. One that might become the internationally recognized symbol that a potentially toxic product of nanotechnology is nearby.

Thus did the quirky idea of holding a design contest turn into a global outpouring of creativity.

Nanotechnology is the hot new science of the very small, in which researchers are engineering materials and devices as tiny as a billionth of a meter across. At those scales, even mundane materials such as carbon perform extraordinary feats -- conducting electricity, for example, or triggering chemical reactions -- that they'd never do in their chunkier forms.

Already, hundreds of products containing nanomaterial are on the market, including stain-resistant fabrics, high-tech tennis rackets, cosmetic creams and sunscreens, computer hard drives and even a "Nanoceuticals Slim Shake," which claims to deliver nutrition directly into your cells in the form of "CocoaClusters" 100,000 times smaller than a grain of sand.

But while nanomaterials offer scientists, cosmetologists and health food companies a whole new palette of matter to work with, they also pose new risks to people and the environment. Animal studies have shown that certain engineered nanoparticles can penetrate cells and migrate into the brain and other organs with uncertain consequences. Some can also concentrate in the soil and kill beneficial microbes.

While many scientists believe that most nanomaterials will ultimately prove to be benign, ETC Group -- which has called for a moratorium on the marketing of nanoproducts until more safety studies are done -- believes in erring on the side of caution. That led to the realization that there is not yet a widely recognized way to warn people of the little risks around them.

Other toxic hazards have signs and symbols that everyone has come to know (think: The Nuclear Hazard sign, the Biohazard sign, the generalized Toxic Hazard sign with its skull and crossbones). But how to symbolize, in a way that everyone can understand, the potentially dangerous presence of something inconceivably small?

"We decided to launch a competition, to get a good design and to raise public awareness," said Hope Shand, ETC's research director. "We thought we might receive a dozen entries or something."

They were thinking small. By last week, more than 400 designs from 24 countries had been filed to the group's Web site, . Some mimic the molecular cross sections of nanotubes. Others play off the letter "N"; or the exponent for one-billionth, 10{+-}{+9}; or the idea of a magnifying glass. "We were absolutely amazed by the response," Shand said.

A panel of six judges, including nanoscientists and artists from such respected institutions as England's Liverpool University and the Chicago Art Institute, winnowed the offerings to 16 finalists. Attendees at this year's World Social Forum in Nairobi -- a large gathering of social and economic justice activists held at the same time as the flashier World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland -- will get to vote this week for their favorite sign.

"We plan to send the winning design to all the standard-setting bodies we can find," Shand said. That would include the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission, both based in Geneva, which are the prime standard-setting bodies for international hazard symbols.

A word of advice if you come upon such a sign in your travels: Give the area a wide berth -- say, a millimeter or two.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company