Not since New Year’s Eve 2000, have so many safety concerns been voiced for what–so far, anyway–seems so little reason. We’re talking about nanotechnology: the catch-all term for engineering super-small features and particles to create things like ultra-sensitive medical diagnostic tools, blazingly fast electronics, and exceptionally strong materials.
There are theoretical risks. When you break something into smaller pieces, you wind up with more surface area for the same mass–making the thing potentially more reactive and more toxic. Also, super-small particles can move to places in the body where other particles can’t, like the alveoli in the lungs and even past the blood-brain barrier.
But at a panel on this so-called “nanotoxicity” during last week’s Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT, four experts in the field all said they knew of no claims of human injuries. Vicki Colvin of Rice University, David Warheit of DuPont, Andrew Maynard of the Woodrow Wilson International Research Center, and Barbara Karn of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency all said that, despite as many as 275 products on the market that claim to incorporate nanoparticles or other nanotechnology, there haven’t been any reported negative consequences. True, earlier this year, a German bathroom cleaner called Magic Nano triggered a spate of respiratory problems. But it turned out Magic Nano didn’t have any nano in it.
The four panelists are crafting various approaches to making sure safety and environmental friendliness is engineered into nanotechnologies. After the panel, I asked Maynard for any news in this area. He pointed to his congressional testimony given the previous week. The House Science Committee wants to make sure that nanotechnology, which receives around $1 billion in federal funding in various areas, from defense to health, won’t ever get slapped with the nano-equivalent of the “frankenfood” label, the memorable moniker that anti-biotech activists gave to foods made with genetically engineered crops. Maynard gave the pols a proposal for making sure this never happens.
He also pointed to a recent survey conducted by the Woodrow Wilson Center, probing the nano-IQ of 1,014 average Americans. The results were announced two weeks ago under this gripping lead:
Research findings released today from the first major national poll on nanotechnology in more than two years indicate that while more Americans are now aware of the emerging science, the majority of the public still has heard little to nothing about it.
The story only got more fascinating from there: this ignorance is shared by both Republicans and Democrats. Rich people know more about nanotech than poor people. And as a kicker: older people and women know the least about nanotech, even though they’re the ones more likely to use the cosmetics and sunscreens that may contain nanoparticles.
Shockingly, the survey garnered little press attention.
Here’s what your Aunt Martha should know about nanotechnology: Yes, as with most human endeavors, the field carries potential risks to human health and the environment. But, by all appearances, the leaders in this field are on top of what is, so far, a nonproblem.
Nanotech is where breakthroughs are likely. Forget about just the cancer-detection and other advanced medical tools it’s midwifing and the next-gen consumer electronics such as super-bright displays. On a planet that’s on the cusp of catastrophic climate change, nano-engineered materials have the potential to make a real difference. Imagine solar power cells that are far cheaper and more efficient; batteries that allow for more efficient electric cars; components that make cleaner coal-fired power plants. These and other applications are hardly trivial–they’ll save energy, reduce pollution, and maybe go a little way to making sure Times Square won’t be under water for the next millennium celebration.