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While much nanotech is still in its early stages and far from marketable, experts now estimate that nano-engineered materials have found their way into as many as 700* products. That growing presence is lending an urgency to learning what environmental and health effects these novel materials may have – and to regulate them accordingly.

In fact, the fate of a host of industries, spanning every sector of the economy, may depend on whether or not regulators get it right. But as things stand now, according to many industry-watchers, the necessary resources to oversee this burgeoning new field just aren’t there.

In early December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft white paper on nanotechnology that identifies gaps in scientists’ understanding of the environmental and health effects of nanotechnology. According to Andrew Maynard, a senior science advisor at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington, DC, it provides what may be the most comprehensive collection yet of researchers’ concerns, balanced with an analysis of the numerous ways nanotechnology could help the environment and human health.

Yet the sheer breadth of these concerns suggests that regulating nanotech may be a task far beyond the capacity of a single government program, says Maynard. The EPA hasn’t settled on how it will regulate nano-engineered materials, but the substances will probably come under the purview of environmental laws already on the books and draw on the agency’s existing funding – which many critics say is far from adequate.

The EPA program will likely take primarily responsibility for regulating nanotechnology, since the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics lacks the funding and personnel for the field offices necessary to monitor manufacturing, says Mark Greenwood, a former senior EPA toxicology official, now a partner in a Washington, DC, law firm specializing in environmental law.

If the EPA is not up to the challenge, it could mean that some nano-enabled products that turn out to be unsafe make it into the marketplace. The fear among the proponents of nanotech’s benefits is that health problems linked to just one such product may lead to a consumer backlash against all nanotechnology. And that could lead to the loss of not only billions of dollars in profits and wasted R&D, but also a loss of nanotech-based products that could have health and environmental benefits, such as ones for reducing the side effects from cancer treatment or quickly cleaning up toxic waste sites.

To be sure, nanotechnology poses a regulatory challenge. Many nanoparticles are made of the same basic chemicals as current products that have already been regulated. But their new physical structures – which make them so appealing for new applications – also give them highly different properties.

Pure carbon, for example, is used as graphite in pencil lead; and, arranged differently, it becomes a diamond. In the world of nananotechnology carbon is transformed into soccer-ball-shaped fullerenes, and their close relatives, nanotubes. The latter have properties that make them appealing for applications as diverse as high-performance computing, photovoltaics, and drug delivery. However, these properties and dimensions may also make them dangerous, if they get into air or water.

If all fullerenes were the same, it would be a relatively straightforward task to learn how they affect humans and the environment, researchers say. But they aren’t. Different manufacturing methods can produce widely varying products with, for example, different amounts of impurities. Further, researchers continue to alter the surfaces of these particles to create new properties.

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*This figure is cited in an Environmental Law Institute publication, “Securing the Promise of Nanotechnology: Is U.S. Environmental Law Up to the Job?”  Estimates of the number of products varies. A representative from the National Nanotechnology Initiative has cited EmTech Research (a subsidiary of Small Times) data showing there are approximately 80 consumer products containing nano-engineered materials and more than 600 raw materials, intermediate materials (such as coatings), electronics components and sensors, drug delivery technologies, research tools, process tools, and software tools.

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