Nanotechnology — the design and manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular level — is pretty impressive stuff. It has the potential of creating a new generation of products that are stronger, cleaner, faster, lighter and more precise. But along with these advancements come some complications. Just what are the pros and cons? I’ll start by looking at how nanotechnology is already affecting us when we (often unknowingly) buy products that contain nanoparticles.
We’re talking about incredibly small stuff here. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. To get an idea of the size of nanoparticles, look at a sheet of paper and know that it’s about 100,000 nanometers thick.
Adding these tiny particles to plastics makes them stronger, lighter and more durable. They’re already used in baseball bats and tennis rackets, and they may be used in the future for things like bullet-proof vests. Food containers and cookware with nanosilver particles are anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-microbial. Nanoparticles inside refrigerators help sterilize and deodorize. They are also popular in beauty products because they are small enough to penetrate deeply into skin, correcting discolorations and eliminating wrinkles. Invisible sunscreens are a product of nanotechnology as well.
To date, more than 800 products contain nanoparticles. Some companies self-report on their use of nanoparticles, but it’s not required so it’s likely that this list of products is actually much longer. Why should you care? Well, the world of nanotechnology is not all sunshine and rainbows.
Nanotechnology clearly has many potential benefits, but are there dangers? The problem is that we don’t fully know. Nanoparticles enter our bodies through beauty products and possibly through food (absorbed from its packaging). But there’s limited research on the health risks posed by nanoparticles. The environmental group Friends of the Earth (FoE) reports that only approximately 100 food-related products containing nanoparticles have a warning label or have undergone safety testing by a government agency. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have begun preliminary research, a lot more still needs to be done.
In one study, researchers reported that a class of nanoparticles could cause lung damage. Another study shows how nanotubes (found in tennis rackets) have similar health risks to asbestos. Nanoparticles tend to migrate to the lungs, but other organs may be affected as well. Nanoparticles are also small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from toxins in the bloodstream. Needless to say, it would be simply irresponsible not to pursue more risk research and to increase precautions in the meantime.
We are blindly forging into new territory and we need to slow down. Nanotechnology is exciting in its potential but if we don’t fully understand the risks involved, innovation may become self-destructive. The first step is to start being aware — how does nanotechnology play a role in your life?
Despite the health scare of nanoparticles, the truth is that they are less likely to harm consumers than the workers who make the products. In the next post of this series, we’ll look at the implications for the workers behind the scenes. Stay tuned…