The number of consumer products made with nanotechnology is exploding, with a 70 percent increase in the past eight months. While recognizing the value of these molecular-level advances, critics say the Bush administration is doing too little to ensure the safety of nanotechnology for workers and the public.
The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said in a report Monday that more than 350 nanotech consumer products are now available, including cosmetics, sunscreens, food containers, and stain-resistant clothing.
Nanotechnology is the science of creating or modifying materials at the atomic and molecular level to develop new or enhanced materials and products. Nano-materials are one-billionth of a meter in size, a thousand times smaller than a red blood cell.
Applications of nanotechnology are altering a wide range of consumer products.
Samsung now sells a new kind of washing machine that releases nanosilver ions during the wash and rinse cycles to kill bacteria.
Sharper Image is marketing nanosilver-treated slippers, socks and food containers that the company says are "anti-germ, anti-mold and anti-fungus."
L'Oreal last week launched its High Intensity Pigment color cosmetics line, a nano particle-based formulation.
NanoOpto Corporation is designing and manufacturing nano-optic devices for digital imaging, displays, and telecommunications.
Considering the enormous growth of nanotechnology, an environmental group today warned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is not doing enough to ensure safety. The Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, says not enough is known about potential health and environmental risks associated with nano-products and their manufacture.
"Nanoparticles behave unpredictably and could harm human beings, wildlife and the environment," warned Dr. Jennifer Sass, an NRDC staff scientist.
"In the face of such a significant jump in the number of everyday products containing untested and unlabelled nanoparticles, the Environmental Protection Agency is moving much too slowly to ensure that they are safe," Sass said.
"We need to know about the short and long-term risks," she said, "especially since we’re already wearing stain-resistant nanoparticle clothing, applying nanoparticle cosmetics and sunscreens, and swabbing our babies’ bottoms with nanoparticle baby wipes."
Andrew Maynard, chief science advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies of the Woodrow Wilson Center outlined some of the risks of nanotechnology in a November 15 paper in the journal "Nature."
"Fears over the possible dangers of some nanotechnologies may be exaggerated, but they are not necessarily unfounded," wrote Maynard.
Calling for more and better research into understanding and preventing risk, Maynard wrote, "Without strategic and targeted risk research, people producing and using nanomaterials could develop unanticipated illness arising from their exposure; public confidence in nanotechnologies could be reduced through real or perceived dangers; and fears of litigation may make nanotechnologies less attractive to investors and the insurance industry."
Maynard suggests that scientists, "Develop instruments to assess exposure to engineered nanomaterials in air and water, within the next three to 10 years."
"Three issues stand out as fertile ground for innovative research," he wrote, "monitors for airborne exposure, detectors for waterborne nanomaterials, and smart sensors that can measure both exposure and potential hazards."
Within the next three years, Maynard says people working with nanomaterials urgently need inexpensive personal aerosol samplers that are capable of measuring exposure in the workplace and environment.
Within the next five years, instruments that can track the release, concentration and transformation of engineered nanomaterials in water systems are needed, he wrote.
"Effluent from nanomanufacturing processes, use of nanoparticle-containing substances such as sunscreens, and disposal of nanomaterial-containing products, will inevitably lead to increasing quantities of engineered nanomaterials in water systems. If we cannot track these materials," Maynard wrote, "it will be almost impossible to determine how benign or harmful their presence is."
Methods to evaluate the toxicity of engineered nanomaterials should be developed within the next five to 15 years, Maynard advised.
Members of the House Science Committee, too, have criticized the Bush administration for moving too slowly to develop a research program on the risks of nanotechnology.
"There is too much at stake to continue to dally," said a joint statement issued November 15 by Committee Chairman Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican, and Congressman Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who is the ranking minority member of the committee.
"Nanotechnology is an area of research that could add billions of dollars to our economy, but that won’t happen if it is shrouded in uncertainty about its consequences," wrote Boehlert and Gordon. "And our citizens, especially individuals who will be working with nanotechnology, need to be protected from any potential harm that could come from materials far smaller than what they have generally been exposed to in the past."
The most prevalent nanomaterial today is nanosilver, which also is widely used as a pesticide. Today nanosilver is found in 47 consumer products – nearly double the number there were on the market in March.
Last week, the EPA announced that it plans to only regulate nanosilver products that are advertised as germ-killing.
In a recent letter to the agency, NRDC asked it to review all consumer products containing nanosilver and require manufacturers to register such products as biocides.
Last month, the EPA sent letters to more than 500 organizations and individuals inviting participation in the design and development of a stewardship program that will help the agency better understand the potential risks and benefits of nanotechnology.
"By bringing people together to address this emerging technology, we can be well positioned to ensure the responsible development of nanotechnology, while at the same time, realizing its promise for a better tomorrow," said Jim Gulliford, assistant administrator for prevention, pesticides and toxic substances at EPA.
"Through open dialogue, public engagement and sound science," he said, "we can establish the appropriate oversight for nanoscale materials and ensure public confidence in its safety."
The United States is not alone in its concern over the risks of nanotechnology. A consumer survey by Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, BfR, released Monday found that consumers were especially critical of the use of nanomaterials in foods.
Those surveyed called for clear definitions, terms and standards as well as more research into the potential problems of nanotechnology.
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