Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Death by Nanotoxins: A New Threat To Your Family?

By now, most people have heard about the new scientific field of nanotechnology. In case you've been out of the loop for a while, it's an emerging area of physics that hopes to build all sorts of wonderful things by designing and putting them together, particle by particle, at the smallest levels. A nanometer is a unit of measurement, and it's extremely small. How small? Well, if you were to take a typical human hair and slice it up into 100 slices of its original width, you would have the measurement of a micron. (One-millionth of a meter.) And if you were to take that micron and divide it again by 1,000, you'd have something measuring one nanometer.

Nanotechnology refers to any type of product designed at these microscopic scales. The technology is still in its infancy, and at this point the field is as much hope and conjecture as it is practical application. Thus far scientists have successfully created nano-fibers; essentially a super-strong type of thread. They're still trying to scale up the process, possibly to create super-light bulletproof vests or clothing, or maybe cables that could support an elevator to space. (No, we're not making that up.) Others promise nano-size robots that would essentially eat unwanted toxic waste and turn it into something useful such as fuel. A lot of work is being done on nanotechnology in medicine. Imagine going to the doctor and getting an IV of cancer-eating nanobots that could restore you to health in a few days. Another team of physicists also managed to put together a crude nano-engine and car, though it proved difficult to control and was more amusing than useful. (It relied on chemical reactions between the molecules to propel itself.)

Though miracle uses for nanotechnology are still theoretical, other less impressive uses are far more here-and-now. In fact, more than 1,000 consumer products containing nanotechnology are already on the market and available to consumers in the United states. Yet some scientists are raising concerns about the safety of this technology.

Some fears are straight out of science fiction movies, such as the concerns expressed by Sun Microsystems co-founder Billy Joy in his essay, 'Why the World Doesn't Need Us.' He argued that self-replicating nano-robots might spiral out of control, consuming everything they encounter and spreading like a virus, transforming the world as we know it into a clump of "gray goo." (Let's hope that doesn't happen.)

Yet another more immediate, and more likely concern may be that the materials created are just plain toxic to humans (or the environment). It's a familiar story: The potential dangers of chemicals such as BPA or Phthalates or lead or asbestos are either downplayed or just plain ignored. Each time, the public is exposed for many years before the government recognizes that we are being poisoned. Then we backtrack. The same concerns and then some exist for nanotechnology. With nanotechnology, we're not only creating new chemicals; but we're actually building entirely new molecular structures that don't exist in nature, and extremely small ones at that.

What do we get when we design entirely new microscopic structures to create nanotechnology? Nobody really knows, and that's precisely the issue. If you bind two oxygen atoms together, you just get good-old oxygen. Add a hydrogen atom to the mix, and you get water, a life-giving resource. But swap out that hydrogen atom and replace it with a carbon atom, and you get Co2, a noxious gas, which is why it's not a good idea to leave your car running in the garage. That one little atom and the manner in which it is arranged can make a big difference in what you end up with.

Moreover, even ordinary materials can display unique properties at the nanoscale level, so even nanometer-size bits of an otherwise benign material might turn out to be toxic. Even naturally occurring nanoparticles can be harmful to human health, because their sheer size makes it easy for them to invade areas of the body where larger particles of matter can't go. For example, when it comes to air pollution, it's been found that fine particles seem to pose the greatest health risk, particularly those 2.5 micrometers indiameter or smaller. Nanotechnology works on a scale hundreds or even thousands of times smaller than this.

Will these nanoproducts prove harmless like water, or will some be toxic like arsenic? Only time will tell. But there's more than a little reason to be concerned. After all, the track record of regulatory agencies over the past century has not been too encouraging. The old "poison you first, ask questions later" philosophy has become a well-established routine that government regulatory agencies play alongside drug or chemical manufacturers.

The good news is that in response to these concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced they were launching a research strategy to study the health and/or environmental effects of nanomaterials, something concerned scientists have been pressing for in recent years. It's a good start, and we can only hope they remain diligent in their task.

Just as worrisome as any potential toxic threat unleashed is the public backlash that could be caused by such a health crisis, should regulatory agencies fail in this due diligence. Nanotechnology has immense promise, and a public health scare could stifle progress and hamper the industry. Just because one form of nanotechnology is noxious doesn't mean they all are, yet the public has a tendency to think in such categorical terms. Procter & Gamble, for example, has already halted R & 0 on nanotechnology, citing the long-term risk of litigation. Public distrust might provide a roadblock towards its miracle uses, which is why it's so important for the EPA to work proactively.

At this point there isn't a whole lot you can do about it...other than hope for cures for cancer and run away from any self-replicating gray goo you come across. So don't waste worries on uncertain dangers that may or may not come to fruition. We just thought you might be interested in knowing about some of the health issues which are unfolding all around us, as technology continues to expand into new realms.

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