Nanotechnology: Real or Imagined Danger?

In 2002, Michael Crichton wrote a fiction thriller called Prey, which highlights the dangers of nanotechnology.

The book is superbly scary. The science isn’t bad either. Nanotechnology, found in an increasing number of products across increasingly diverse fields of human endeavor, is the science of the super-small. The use of nanoparticles has increased threefold in the past two years, and is now found in everything from de-greasers to crampons used in mountain climbing.

Nanomaterials are measured in nanometers, or one millionth of a meter. A meter is about 3.2 feet, and a nanoparticle can range from 1 to 100 nanometers, or about 1/100,000 the thickness of a human hair. Nanomaterials are small enough, in fact, to act like bacteria once they enter the biological life cycle of everything from plants to man, and therein lies their danger.

Nanoparticles are so small they can penetrate cells and tissues, and in doing so set off highly reactive processes, like immune system responses. These can, in time and without remediation, lead to persistent allergic responses, immune system failure or even autoimmune disorders. A typical example would be the ultrafine particulates present in air pollution, which can cause, or worsen, asthma, allergies, chronic bronchitis, COPD, heart disease and even cancer.

The U.S. Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies keeps a database of about 500 or more products, with 3 or 4 more emerging every month. Many of them are used in such items as toothpaste, clothing, automotive manufacturing and supplies, glues, computer products, and bicycles. They are also found in sunscreens, shoe deodorizers and eyeglasses. A recent invention incorporates magnetic nanoparticles dispersed in oil as a means for cleaning up oil spills, and this – while still in its infancy – hints at the additional dangers nanoparticles might present in aquatic environments.

This field generates more than $30 billion in sales in the U.S., and is likely to top out over $1 trillion by 2018, yet remains largely unregulated. The FDA, influenced by lobbyists, refuses to label nanoproducts, arguing that they are not more inherently risky than the products themselves. Yet in Ohio, University of Dayton researchers have found evidence that carbon nanotubes – a common chemical formulation known as the “poster material” of nanotechnology – cause DNA damage and mutations in mice, and an even more current report states that inhaling carbon nanotubes could be as harmful as breathing in asbestos.

The EPA, for its part, has initiated a Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which asks no more than voluntary participation by nanoscale manufacturers by the end of July of this year. The EPA says it “might” issue a data-collection rule if the manufacturers fail to participate. So far, only four companies have responded.

In Britian, the Soil Association – that nation’s largest organic certification organization, has banned nanoproducts. Regionally, Wisconsin is considering wider legislation, and Canada has issued its own report citing the potential dangers and asking for more regulation.

The problem with regulating nano is that there is presently no international definition of what a nanoparticle is or how its use makes a product a “nanoproduct.” The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is working to address this problem, and the Canadian government concedes that this would at least make it easier to determine which products are grandfathered in under its current legislation and which are entirely new products and/or uses.

In the meantime, before you purchase a product, you might want to consult the database of known nanoproducts to discover if it contains nanoparticles. As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was fond of saying: “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.

I have my own saying based on a lifetime of waiting for the bombs that didn’t explode and the diseases that did: It’s the little things that get you in the end.

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any companies using nanotechnology.

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