Buzzword: Nanotechnology

Consumer Reports News: September 22, 2008 02:07 PM

What does it mean? Nanotechnology, or nanotech for short, refers to the creation of incredibly tiny materials and devices for a whole host of uses, from cancer treatments to food and cosmetics. "Nano" comes from the Greek word for "dwarf," and in the metric system a nanometer is equal to a billionth of a meter. How small is a nanometer? A black strand of human hair is between 50,000 and 180,000 nanometers in size or less, and a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Nanotechnologists typically work on materials and devices at the molecular or atomic scale of 100 nanometers in size or less. The principles of quantum physics rule the land of nanotechnology, meaning materials can display characteristics that appear to come from science fiction: Carbon can be 100 times stronger than steel, gold can melt at room temperature, and aluminum can turn explosive. In addition, researchers can manipulate individual atoms and molecules to form microscopic tubes, spheres, wires, and films for specific tasks, such as generating electricity or transporting drugs in the body.

Why the buzz? Nanotechnology is making its way into products and materials at a breathtaking rate, with about $2.6 trillion worth of goods worldwide expected to use nanotechnology by 2014, a 5,200 percent increase from just $50 billion in 2006. But even though nanotech materials are pushing their way into products of every kind, size, and shape, the nanotech industry is barely regulated.

That is deeply troubling to many scientists, because the same amazing properties that make nanotech materials and devices so promising also create the potential to do unexpected harm, particularly when they enter the human body. For example, nanotech materials are so small that some might be able to pass by the body’s defenses, including the walls of cells. Since nanotech materials have an exponentially greater amount of atoms on their surface areas than their full-sized cousins, a substance that is perfectly safe in its regular form could turn out to be toxic in its nanotech form.

In recent testimony to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regarding nanotechnology and food ingredients, Consumers Union Senior Scientist Michael Hansen told the agency that nanoparticles should be considered different from their normal-size counterparts, and separate safety assessments should be performed on them. Furthermore, he told the FDA it should require labeling of such ingredients immediately. "Basic questions exist about the ability to adequately characterize and measure nanoparticles and their properties," Hansen testified. "Even the ability to accurately measure the size of some (engineered nanoscale materials) is sorely lacking."

Essential Information:

Consumer Reports Overview on Nanotechnology

U.S. Government National Nanotechnology Initiative

Center for Responsible Nanotechnology: What is Nanotechnology

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

Bob Williams, strategic resource director, Consumers Union

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