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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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Reader Comments

Wed, Aug 15, 2007 KEITH DUERR VA

These issues are certainly noteworthy but are child's play in the face of China's Program 863 - Building a Post-nuclear Super-weapon: http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2005/9/30/90410.shtml.If you think that the US Government is asleep at the switch regarding the mess in Iraq, our lack of response to Program 863, both diplomatically and technically, will eventually result in the Red Phone ringing and the answerer hearing two words: Check Mate!The recent Chinese demonstration that blocked GPS satellite reception when over Chinese territory (thus neutralizing our ability to monitor their military activites) is a chilling precursor of what's on the horizon.The US is in a collective state of LaLa land regarding nanotechnology in general and nano-weapons in particular.Nano-nightmare: China builds futuristic weapons; U.S. sleeps: http://www.worldtribune.com/worldtribune/WTARC/2007/lev7_06.aspEric Drexler, the Einstein of nanotechnology, sent a letter to President Bush to warn him of the possibility of the development of nano weapons in China, just as Einstein warned President Roosevelt of the POSSIBILITY (no, not of CERTAINTY) of the development of nuclear weapons in Germany. Accordingly, Roosevelt launched the Manhattan Project.Drexler published his major nanotecnology study in 1986. The book is entitled optimistically 'Engines of Creation,' but contains one chapter, entitled 'Engines of Destruction,' about nano weapons. Drexler said about nano weapons that the U.S. 'refusal to develop them' is 'the equivalent of unilateral disarmament,' and the outcome could be nothing less than 'the destruction of the United States.' http://www.e-drexler.com/d/06/00/EOC/EOC_Chapter_11.html

Wed, Jul 11, 2007 J Pope IL

While I agree that caution is needed, Ms Haase does seem to have avoided her own advice to make "informed decisions" in authoring this piece.Firstly, it is necessary to distinguish between engineered nanomaterials (which may or may not form particulates), and the pervasive naturally occurring nanoparticulates - with which we've co-existed for millennia.In between those sources is the giant experiment on ourselves begun in the 1880s when increasing numbers of internal combustion engines spewed their first nanoparticulate-laden exhaust into the air. While not "engineered" for a function, these sooty particulates have been shown to play a role in the inflammation underlying cardiovascular disease - perhaps a call for "backlash" against them is also necessary.Secondly, a call for risk assessment cannot be heeded right now because the basic toxicological data to establish consequences (risk = consequences x likelihood) just **does not** exist. What to do? Pushing for research to ID principles to allow hazard triage and skeptical self-education are good starts.The ICON website provided under the "informed decisions" link contains information and documents like the DOE research centers'"Approaches to Nanomaterials ES&H", which is a first attempt by government-funded researchers to establish requirements to protect the workers, the public and the environment.Indeed, ICON itself is a partnership of government and industry to share information on evolving hazard indications and controls. Industry has been making products with ultrafine particulates for many years, and they are dazzled with the projected profits from nanomaterials - hence they are loathe to let the technology follow the traditional trajectory of: early adoption/profits, negative effects/rejection, knee-jerk government regulation, slow recovery of the new, "safe" tehcnology.Since industry is facing that direction, we, as citizens must keep them marching along to safe deployment.

Tue, Jul 10, 2007 Phil Loftis WV

Sorry, but this opinion piece doesn't measure up to GCN's usual standard of journalistic rigor. Why is "4%" of a billion dollars not considered "enough" for risk assessment? What number would be "enough"? Frankly, I'm surprised the number is that high; 4% of a billion is some $40 million dollars, and that ought to buy a lot of risk assessment studies. I tend to reject assertions like "we should spend more" that don't (appear to) have a basis in rational analysis. And calling for a "backlash" against nanotechnology out of fear and ignorance is unconscionable, and damages your credibility (with me, at least). "Informed decisions" means you have ALL the facts available, not just notification of the presence or absence of "nanotech" components. Manufacturers would be well advised to continue their current approach until there is a deeper understanding of the risks posed, if any. Otherwise, the demonstrated benefits of the technology (such as the antibacterial properties of your mouse's coating) will never see the light of day, and will never get the kind of real world testing required to determine if there are any unanticipated negative effects. In my opinion, this is counterproductive and unwarranted by objective evidence. [Note that I have no interest in any nanotech firms, derive no income from nanotechnology, and have no other connection to that industry that would serve to bias my opinion. My biases are entirely of my own creation!]

Tue, Jul 10, 2007 Darrell Bailey WV

We're doomed...doomed I say!

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