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Nanotechnology's dark side

It's not something Mork from Ork said, nor is it science fiction. Nanotechnology is here, and though its capabilities are near-miraculous, it has a dark side to which the federal government doesn't seem to be devoting as much attention as it should.

Nanotechnology refers to the manipulation of matter on a molecular level. Scientists can create new materials by building them atom by atom, or extract new properties from existing materials by cutting them back to sizes as small as a nanometer, which is about one-hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair.

The resulting substances range from 'gee whiz,' such as the bacteria-killing silver nanoparticle coating on the mouse I'm using, to downright mind-blowing, such as drugs that seek out and destroy cancer cells.

The problem, though, is that we don't know much about the risks of playing around with matter on this level. I was alarmed by a report in July's issue of Consumer Reports (subscription required) stating that the feds spent more than a billion dollars last year on nanotech research and only four percent of that went to risk assessment.

Nanotechnology is scary for several reasons, according to the report. One is that normally benign materials can become toxic when nanosized because microscopic particles tend to react more readily with human tissues and other substances. One study suggested that nanoparticles might help transform proteins into substances linked with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, although the clinical significance, if any, is not known.

What's more, nanoparticles can enter the body and its vital organs much more easily than larger particles and we don't know what the effects could be. I wonder if I have silver nanoparticles from my mouse floating around in my bloodstream and if so, will they affect my health in the future?

If you think you can avoid the risks of nanoparticles by simply avoiding products that contain them, think again. There's a good chance you've already been exposed to them or even ingested them without knowing it.

That's because nanoparticles are showing up in products such as food additives and sunscreens, and ' here's the truly outrageous part -- manufacturers are not required to disclose their presence. In fact, some manufacturers are actively avoiding the use of the word 'nano' for fear of a consumer backlash. (The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies maintains a list of products that are advertised or labeled as containing nanoingredients'including IT equipment such as Intel and AMD microprocessors).

But lashing back is exactly what I think we should do. This is scary stuff, and at the very least we should be able to make informed decisions about using products that pose unknown risks. The government should increase oversight and devote more of its research dollars to risk assessment, and manufacturers should be required to label nanoparticle-containing products as such.

And if you want to share your thoughts with the government, go to the Web sites of the Food and Drug Administration or the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office.

Posted by Michelle S. Haase on Jul 09, 2007 at 9:39 AM


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