The challenge of regulating nanomaterials
As the nanotechnology industry thunders ahead, filling consumer products with nanomaterials, experts worry about the lack of adequate oversight and regulation.
Get ready for a nanolife. Wake up in a bed with cotton sheets made bug-free with silver nanoparticles, brush your teeth with toothpaste bristling with nanogold, step into pants made dirt- and moisture-resistant through nanofibers, and go out with nanosunscreen on your skin. These nanobased consumer products are already on the market around the world, and the list is growing.
Nanomaterials could make life smoother. They promise to provide cleaner water and new ways to precisely target cancer cells. But despite the potential that nanotechnology holds, scientists, environmentalists, and policy experts around the world are concerned about its unknown risks.
"Every technology ever developed . . . has had some sort of adverse consequences, and sometimes they've been serious, sometimes not," says J. Clarence Davies, a senior adviser to the Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN). In addition to chairing the National Academies' Committee on Principles of Decision Making for Regulating Chemicals in the Environment, Davies served as the U.S. EPA's assistant administrator for policy from 1989 to 1991. "It's unprecedented and would defy common sense if there weren't some problem somewhere" with nanotechnology, he adds.
Thus far, these tiny yet powerful materials have not caused any known human-health problems or environmental disasters. However, a growing number of studies are illustrating that many of these substances can have detrimental effects on animals. A study by researchers at Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and the University of Washington Seattle showed that fullerenes (C60 nanomaterials often called buckyballs) can cause oxidative stress in the brains of largemouth bass (Environ. Health Perspect. 2004, 112 (10), 1058–1062). Another study, by a team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Peking University, showed that mice exposed to copper nanomaterials had serious kidney, liver, and spleen damage (Toxicol. Lett. 2006, 163 (2), 109–120).
The miniature size of nanomaterials—the very property that bestows on them special powers—and the way their surfaces are modified increase the ease with which they can interact with biological systems, thus increasing the chances of causing harm. A recent study showed that when nanomaterials are coated with organic substances like lipids they become more accessible to water fleas (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2007, 41 (8), 3025–3029). The fleas ingest the materials and strip the lipid layer for food, eventually causing the naked carbon nanomaterials to block their digestive tracts and kill them.
Research does not imply that all nanomaterials are inherently harmful, and experts agree that it would be unwise to stop nanomaterial production. The technology is growing rapidly. According to Lux Research, a New York-based independent intelligence and technology research and advisory firm, investments in the nanotechnology industry grew from $13 billion in 2004 to $50 billion in 2006. The firm projects that investments will reach $2.6 trillion by 2014. These predictions have many experts saying that it is imperative that the industry be carefully regulated before it's too late. As Richard Denison, senior scientist with the advocacy organization Environmental Defense points out, given the pace of the industry's growth, "the urgency for action has only increased."
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