Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead - Robert Brockway (2010)
Chapter 11. NANOLITTER
WITH ALL THE CURRENT fearmongering about nanotechnology—most of which has been done within the confines of this book—it’s not actually very likely that the nanobots are going to build their children out of the last sad remnants of Earth or inspire a deadly new team of superanimals like the world’s tiniest Legion of Doom.
But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean we’re not all going to die anyway!
This is because even the most benevolent of nanobots share one simple, undeniable commonality: To achieve any major effects, there are going to have to be a lot of them and, though it is infinitesimal, they do take up some space. When their purpose is complete, they’ll deactivate and die off—unfortunately leaving their corpses where they lie.
But so what? Aside from the hassle of having to construct a plethora of mini tombstones (and the rather gross prospect of microscopic widows getting grief fucked inside your teeth), how could this possibly affect you? Well, the primary application for a lot of this nanotech is going to be for health issues: improving stamina, boosting immune systems, and fighting off cancer. All those corpses are basically just litter, and the human body is their environment, which means that when they die, they die inside of you. And if you think this scenario—that you’ll be poisoned to death by the corpses of miniature robots that live inside your blood just like that hobo down by the library keeps screaming—sounds somewhat outlandish, then you should know one little thing: It’s already happening.
The Five Stages of Grief
· Grief fucking
Take, for instance, the scientists over at Kraft foods—scientists whose job, ordinarily, probably consists of formulating the perfect Dora the Explorer pasta shape-to-cheese ratio—are instead currently working on new types of nanoparticles to add to beverages. They plan to create “interactive beverages” that will shift colors and patterns according to your input. So on the plus side, you can have green beer whenever you want it, but the trade-off is that it’s potentially full of superpoisons. Some would argue that these risks dramatically outweigh the benefits here, but those people probably haven’t spent their entire lives wishing beyond hope that their Coke would turn pink when they rubbed it. Clearly, those bastards just don’t understand the dream.
Kraft Interactive Mood Beverages
· Angry Cherry
· Depression Blueberry
· Jealous-Rage Sour Apple
· On-the-Prowl Pink
· Willing-to-Settle Gray
OK, so nanoparticles aren’t exactly murderous microscopic robots. They actually have a lot of positive effects, and are being used in vastly increasing numbers across myriad products, from paint to socks, makeup to underwear. Their upsides are easy to see: They can have a lot of useful effects, cost very little to produce, and take up almost no space in existing products. Most of what we know about them is quite beneficial; it’s the stuff we don’t know that’s worrisome.
Back in March 2002, the EPA found the first inklings of the problems to come, when a study they’d conducted found nanoparticles cropping up in the livers of research animals. This warranted urgent further study, seeing as how nanotech was on the verge of becoming the world’s largest emerging industry. Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center quickly confirmed that at least one kind of nanoparticle could indeed penetrate the skin, and from there seep into the bloodstream. Those particles are called quantum dots, and they’re on the smaller end of the nanoparticle scale. They are often used in makeup and sunblock, which is unfortunate, considering how they seep through skin like that—but even more unfortunate when you consider that UV light, like from the sun, actually facilitates absorption of the dots. So the thing you use to protect yourself from the sun is actually rendered harmful and then activated and inserted into your body by the mere presence of sunlight. Apparently the engineers in charge of quantum dot production got their doctorates in Irony from Incompetent University.
Separate research conducted by scientists at Purdue University concentrated on tracking the likelihood of other nanoparticles, called buckyballs, infiltrating human systems—be it through water, soil, or the fatty tissue of the livestock we consume. And they found that there was indeed a pretty high chance of these buckyballs attaching to our own fatty tissues—even more so than DDT, the notoriously harmful pesticide. Now, to be fair, it was not outright stated in the study that buckyballs do anything worse than DDT once they get in there, but this comparison was specified in the report. That’s like conducting research that concludes that adorable bunnies are ten times more likely to be found in your home than murderous serial killers. Sure, it’s innocuous enough information, but when you phrase it like that it’s clearly going to scare the shit out of everybody.
Rejected Slogan for Nanoparticles
“Pentetratin’ you like you know you like it since 2002.”
But nobody was entirely sure what these revelations really meant for humanity at the time; as one panel member, Vicki Colvin, professor and director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University in Texas, put it:
Other Disturbing Ways to Phrase Test Results
· “You’ve got more white blood cells than a vampire Klan meeting.”
· “You’ve got a higher
· semen count than your whorish mother’s mouth.”
· “You’ve got an ‘A’! And an ‘I’ and a ‘D’ and an ‘S’!”
One thing we’ve concluded is whatever these things [nanomaterials] are going to do, they’re not inert. What will they do when they get in the environment, and what will they do when they get into people?
If seeing that sort of fearful uncertainty from people who typically really know their shit has you a little worried—don’t be! That worry is totally premature; I would save it for later … when things get worse.
When the EPA finally decided that this stuff needed to be regulated way back in 2008, they started the Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program, which requested that companies send in safety records for their environmental research efforts in the field of nanotechnology. The only catch? This program was completely voluntary, and the companies could omit literally anything they didn’t feel like sharing. So basically the EPA asked large, profit-motivated companies to pinky swear that “everything was cool,” and then followed up by asking them if it was “for realsies.” And if there’s one thing that massive corporations have shown they take seriously, it’s the honor system.
Later, a member of the EPA council, Mark Wiesner, director of the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology at Duke University and former director of the Environmental and Energy Systems Institute at Rice University, took the art of issuing worryingly ambiguous statements even further when he went on record with his concerns about large-scale nanoproduction, stating, “People talk about incorporating nanotubes in composites that might be used in tires. When you drive tires around, they wear down, and so nanotubes will be passed around in the environment. Where does this stuff go? What will be its interaction with the environment? Is it the next best thing to sliced bread, or the next asbestos?”
The Scale of Greatness to Tragedy, According to the EPA Council
· Sliced bread
· Warm cookies
· Alan Thicke
· Awkward high fives
So he’s really just trying to say that there might be cause for concern here; he just worded it as vaguely, and as threateningly, as possible. He might as well state that this scenario is either a chocolate bar or a hand grenade; it’s either a new puppy or a furious grizzly bear; either multiple orgasms or blindfolded chain-saw surgery.
As far from comforting as Wiesner’s creepy PR statements are, it starts to get worse when you realize that he’s being literal. See, carbon nanotubes closely resemble asbestos fibers in shape: They’re elongated, thin, and bar shaped. But the tubes are not typically as dangerous as asbestos, because they have a tendency to group together, which alters their overall shape and thus renders them harmless. However, if they do split into single fibers, they can then inflict the same kind of damage that long-term exposure to asbestos has, like serious respiratory problems, and even cancer, say the results of a 2008 study published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. So it’s probably not such a great thing that a large area of current nanotech research is dedicated solely to finding methods that make sure these things don’t clump together, but rather stay separated into their tiny, thin, deadly form. After all, asbestos wasn’t all bad: Before it started killing people, it made somebody like a billion dollars!
Transcript from Development Meeting of Nanotube Shape Deciders
“Listen, guys, I love this tiny shit we’re doing here, but I’ve got an idea and I’m just gonna throw it out there: Let’s make ’em long, straight, thin filaments—like asbestos!”
“But sir, is it really the best idea to model our product after a deadly carcinogen?”
“You know what else is a deadly carcinogen? Your butt! Ho! Served!”
“Well played, sir. Cancer tubes it is.”
Concerns are also being raised about interaction between nanoscale products and external factors. Even if the nanotech itself is totally safe, if it meets up with the wrong stuff inside your body, all hell breaks loose. It’s like this: Say you have a lovely, pure, angelic daughter. She’s very talented, well-spoken, and a pleasure to be around. She’s the light of your life. But one day she brings home her new boyfriend to meet the folks … and he’s a rabid grizzly bear. Now, your daughter is still an angel in her natural environment (your home) and a grizzly bear is a noble, majestic creature in its home (the wild), but when you bring the two together, it tends to fuck up the family reunion. Now replace the family reunion in that metaphor with your own sweet internal organs, and you’ve got a delicious terror sauce that pairs well with both anxiety and horror!
Take gallium arsenide, for example: It’s just a harmless semiconductor, kind of like a faster version of silicon. It’s already all over many small-scale electronics and solar panels, but if you deploy it at the nano scale, suddenly it starts seeping into your body. And that’s when shit really goes wrong, because gallium arsenide is made from gallium … and arsenic! You know, like the deadly poison? So yes, gallium arsenide is a completely safe tool on the normal scale, but if it starts actually getting inside your body, you might have some problems, and deadly, poisonous problems are among the shittiest genre of problems to have inflicted on every cell in your body. That risk is not inherent to just gallium arsenide, either; pretty much any material could, theoretically, have that ill effect when brought to the micro scale. A toaster, for example, is a lovely machine—who doesn’t love its warm, crispy ejaculations? But if you shrink that toaster down to the nano scale, well, suddenly it’s a different story when that comforting, crusty breakfast staple is being made a billion times a second inside your own heart.
Terror Sauce Wine Pairing Guide
· Red meat + terror sauce = pinot noir
· Fish + terror sauce = chardonnay
· Spiders + terror sauce = tears
· Clowns + terror sauce = nightmares
· Spider clowns + terror sauce = nocturnal fear emissions
And it’s not like you can just opt out of it, either, because this seepage factor means it won’t affect only the voluntary users of nanotech. A core principle of effective nanotechnology, after all, is the ability to spread in anything from bodily fluids to simple skin contact, through our food supply, or even as airborne contaminants. And once they do enter your bloodstream, any number of other disastrous interactions can occur: The proteins in your blood may “wrap them up,” thus distorting their own shape in the process. And when their shape changes, so does their function. Depending on what shape they’re surrounding, those proteins may suddenly switch functions. They may, for instance, get confused and switch to clotting—causing your blood to suddenly coagulate inside your veins.
Or even more worryingly, bacteria may piggyback on nanoparticles intended for medicinal purposes. This is particularly bad because medicinal nanotech will be engineered to bypass your immune system, seeing as how your immune system would destroy the particles as it would any other foreign invader, and they wouldn’t be effective as medicines if they were destroyed. So any bacteria piggybacking on these beneficial particles could then use said particles like tiny little BattleMechs—their otherwise weak bodies being shielded by the hardy, nigh-indestructible armor that is the medicinal nanoparticle. This would transform otherwise easily destroyed bacteria into little blood-borne ninjas, free to wreak severe devastation on your immune system with no way of being detected.
For a current example of potentially dangerous nanotech particles in use, consider nanosilver: It’s used for its antimicrobial properties to both eliminate odor and reduce the chance of infection. As such, they’re being mass produced for use in socks, underwear, bandages, cookware—a billion little particles with a billion potential uses, and they don’t even need to be modified, just shrunk down. This is because some elements, when reduced to nanoscale, can suddenly have effects previously unseen in their large-scale counterparts. One gram of any nanoparticle less than ten nanometers in diameter is roughly one hundred times more reactive than a gram of the same material comprised of larger, micrometer particles. In short, the more you shrink it, the more crazy shit it does. Just like the Japanese.
Unnecessary Joke Explanation
Because the Japanese are typically a shorter people, and are, as a nation, batshit insane God love them for their awesome robots, but you cannot dispute the epicness of their crazy.
It’s also astoundingly hard to measure the exact effects of any random nanoparticles you may absorb, because the more you accumulate of any given particle, the more you change the way it affects you. In the case of regular-scale silver, the side effects on human beings are relatively harmless. At most, if you consume too much normal silver you’ll develop argyria—a condition that turns your skin blue. It is permanent, but otherwise relatively harmless. The upside of normal-scale medicinal silver? It’s an effective antimicrobial ingredient whose flexibility and relative safety have proven incredibly useful to human beings. The downside? You might have to spend the rest of your life as a Smurf. And that’s pretty OK, right? They seem happy enough folk, even if it is a bit of a sausage party.
Nanoscale silver is still beneficial, of course: It still has all the antimicrobial properties of its larger counterpart … it’s just that it might have too much. Professor Zhiqiang Hu, from the University of Missouri, has conducted studies that showed that even relatively small doses of nanosilver can kill the bacteria used to process sewage and waste. So the more nanosilver you flush, the more invincible you make your own poop—a disturbing thought if ever there was one. And these aren’t the only necessary bacteria that silver puts at risk: If too much gets into ordinary soil, it can eliminate nitrogen-fixing bacteria in there as well. All plants on Earth need that stuff to live, so if you kill that off, no more food for you. And as a human being, you probably need that stuff to live. Well, unless you’ve drunk too much normal-scale silver, in which case you’d be just fine; Smurfberries will be largely unaffected.
Downsides of Being a Smurf
Physically frail Whole life limited by adjective before name Always getting captured by asshat Gargamel Only one woman Sloppy 242nds
Yet another problem lies in the very nature of nanotech’s construction. See, nanobots have to be made of only the hardiest materials in order to withstand the vast atmospheric pressures that would otherwise crush their delicate machinery. Materials like diamond, carbon, and even gold are used in pretty much all nanotech. Durable materials. Strong materials. Materials that do not break down. Materials that sit inside your veins, and just build up, and up. It takes only a millimeter of arterial plaque in your veins to provoke coronary artery disease (the leading cause of fatal heart attacks), and though nanobots are much smaller than that, there’s going to be a hell of a lot of them. Basically, you could now be looking at a massively contagious worldwide heart attack. It’s a supreme twist of irony: By developing microscopic, disposable machines in order to do away with the arcane, polluting, industrial practices of yesteryear, we may literally pollute ourselves to death from the inside out with the litter of the future. On the plus side, though, that litter is mostly made of diamonds and gold—so at least your insides will be blinged out like Snoop Dogg’s car on the submolecular level. It’s like they say: “Live fast, die young, leave behind a beautiful, jewel-encrusted cardiovascular system.”