You can’t look at internet news lately without seeing the latest and greatest in nanotechnology developments. Everything these days is being manufactured smaller, faster, more durable, and under more and more human control with the help of science. Nanotechnology is a giant rising star in business, already cresting $225 billion dollars in product sales as of 2009 with exponential growth continuing. It’s the cure-all, the golden egg, or the philosopher’s stone, if you will, of the modern world of science. As such, every other industry wants a piece of this new revenue pie and is developing nanotech faster than we can think about it.
What’s not understood, however, is the effects that nanomaterial will have on humans and the environment. More than anything else, that’s a cause for concern that everyone should pause and take note of.
Chances are you have been using products that contain nanomaterials for a couple years now, from clothing to cosmetics to even paint. Building objects from the atomic level adds a layer of customization and refinement that we’re not able to find in nature, not to mention many substances are shown to have abnormal and useful qualities when shaped in such a form, like self-cleaning t-shirts and plaque-fighting silver in toothpaste.
But nanomaterial’s strength in its size is also its weakness. They can be easily ingested or absorbed through the skin and can bleed into the environment at any point between manufacturing and use. This behavior and its effects are not entirely understood by science at this point, and the gap is only going to get wider as more and more industries delve into nanotech to enhance and build their products.
Lack of funds for research that evaluates risk is the main culprit of this, as well as the fact that companies that are tasked with researching that risk are also the companies whose livelihoods depend upon promotion of nanotechnology, creating a hand in the cookie jar scenario that we’ve all seen before.
An advisory panel of the National Academy of Sciences is calling for a four-part research push in the the areas of identifying sources of nanomaterial releases, processes that affect exposure and hazards, nanomaterial interactions at subcellular to ecosystem-wide levels, and ways to accelerate research progress.
To ask for such a wide array of topics to be diligently looked into should be some cause for alarm to any consumer, because the assumption then is that there is no hard data on these topics at all. According to Nano.gov, over 800 everyday commercial products already rely on nanomaterials, from baseball bats to anti-wrinkle clothing to sunscreen and — get this — nanocomposites in food containers.
It’s probably safe to say that we’re ingesting these products already, and science has no clear indication if that’s a bad thing or not.
It gets worse, as well. Future applications of nanomaterials include purifying drinking water and the very air we breathe, among other things. Is this a situation where the cure is worse than the malady? How do we know?
Hopefully in the coming months a plan will be devised to explore the potential effects that nanomaterials have on us and our environment. Hopefully it won’t be too late, but on the bright side, maybe we can use nanotechnology to clean out nanomaterials some day.
It’s a chilling thought, isn’t it?
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