No small matter

It could save us, if it doesn’t kill us first. That’s the general idea behind concerns over nanotechnology, the science of manipulating materials about one nanometer wide, or one billionth of a meter—as small as a virus and capable of penetrating the skin.

Nanotechnology is being hailed as our answer to more powerful computers, stronger beer bottles, smoother skin, and perhaps affordable solar energy (see Greenspace, “Cheapening the Sun,” Dec. 13). More than $50 billion in products incorporating nanotechnology were sold worldwide in 2006, while worldwide investment in it topped $12 billion.

But the risks of nanotechnology are largely unknown, according to a report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Its Project for Emerging Technologies surveyed New England nanotechnology companies to see how they address the potential environmental, health and safety (EHS) impacts of new nanoscale products. The survey found that while most large firms recognize possible EHS risks, they say a lack of information hinders their ability to manage or control those risks. Only 53 percent reported taking steps to do so.

Furthermore, while nanotechnology innovations have been shown to help fight cancer, evidence suggests exposure to nanoparticles may actually cause cancer. Short-term studies found that fish who ingested a small number of carbon nanoparticles were more likely to develop brain cancer, and rats who breathed in carbon nanotubes developed lung problems similar to asbestos exposure.

Environmental groups, such as Environmental Defense and Friends of the Earth, are campaigning for safety regulations to keep up with nanotech research.

“There’s no reason to think that all of these things are going to be harmful,” said John Balbus, chief health scientist at Environmental Defense. “But we should be prudent because of their ability to get into the body and access parts of it that normal chemicals don’t.”

The Food and Drug Administration considers special labeling and regulations unnecessary for nanotechnology because, it said, it’s found no scientific evidence they pose major safety risks.

In lieu of government regulation, Environmental Defense developed a system for evaluating and managing the risks of nano-products called the Nano Risk Framework. DuPont has agreed to adopt the system, and the group hopes other companies working with nanotechnology will follow suit.