Nanotechnology—if you’re not too sure what it is you’re not alone. But its rapid growth has scientists and NGOs (non government organizations) concerned that not enough is being done to ensure that the burgeoning technology is safe for humans and the environment.
More than 800 products containing altered molecules are commercially available, including sunscreens, food supplements, spill- and wrinkle-resistant clothing, stronger and lighter sports equipment and auto parts, germ-resistant kitchen utensils, scratch-resistant paint, and smell-free socks.
Militaries are examining the use of nanoparticles for improved combustibility of fuels and explosivity of bombs, and the technology holds great promise for revolutionizing medicine, agriculture, “green” energy, and the environment.
Thousands of applications are being studied and new products and patents are being introduced weekly, mostly in the area of automotive and medical products, cosmetics, and electronics.
In 2007, the global market for goods incorporating nanotechnology totaled $147 billion. That figure is predicted to grow to $3.1 trillion by 2015.
Nanotechnology is the science of the extremely tiny, allowing common materials and chemicals to be manipulated at the nanoscale—one billionth of a meter. A human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide. Carbon nanotube fibers are approximately 20 times stronger than steel or Kevlar of the same weight.
Nanoparticles can vastly improve the performance of just about any product imaginable or create new products from the ground up. This has some hailing nanotech as the next—though infinitely more sophisticated—industrial revolution.
Advocates say if developed safely, creating new products by manipulating matter at the molecular level will boost economies and improve quality of life.
But little is known about the downside of nanotech, and accounting for the behaviour of these miniscule man-made particles is proving to be problematic for industry and governments, says toxicologist Shane Journeay, CEO of Nova Scotia-based Nanotechnology Toxicology Consulting and Training (NTC&T).
“With nanoparticles being incorporated into so many things … the big concern is that this could get in the human body and cause adverse effects. And on the environmental side it’s really similar to any other chemical, yet tracking them in the environment, collecting them to see how they behave is very, very difficult right now,” he says.
While many methods exist to test toxic levels in new cancer drugs or pesticides, Journeay says that in nanotech, “A lot of that changes, because the behavior of these nanomaterials is so different from anything we’ve dealt with before. So the science of even assessing what they are going to do in the human body or the environment is changing, but it’s not changing as quickly as these materials are being produced, and that’s where the real difficulty is.”
Only a tiny fraction of the funding devoted to nanotechnology has been set aside to determine the human and environmental health effects of nanoparticles, he says.
Particles reduced to such a minute size take on unique properties and behave differently, which may cause toxicity in a different way than traditional chemicals. One concern is that nanoparticles may behave like asbestos, lodging in the body and causing cancer.
Studies have demonstrated that nanoparticles can be translocated out of the lungs to the liver and even into the brain. Other research has shown toxic effects in plants and fish, with brain damage occurring in the latter just 48 hours after being exposed to nanoparticles.
In 2006, German authorities recalled Magic Nano, a nanotech bathroom cleaner, after 77 people reported respiratory distress from using the product. Six were hospitalized but later released when their condition improved.
At that time the ETC Group, an emerging technologies watchdog, renewed its 2003 call for a global moratorium on all nanotech lab research and a recall of consumer products containing engineered nanoparticles, particularly those that are ingested, applied to the body, or released in the environment.
But some argue that existing regulations are adequate and that development should continue to move forward until solid scientific conclusions can be made about nanomaterials’ toxicity.
In a report to Health Canada last July, a panel of nanotech experts said the government urgently needs to assess the potential risks of nanomaterials and to strengthen its regulatory system to deal with them. A request for comment from Health Canada was not returned.
Many countries, including Canada, have implemented, or plan to implement, information gathering schemes to obtain basic knowledge from nanotech companies. Environment Canada says the information will be used toward the development of a regulatory framework.
Journeay says there is “considerable ambiguity” over what constitutes a nanomaterial, and government agencies are ill prepared from a regulatory perspective because deciding what exactly to target for regulation is a complex task.
It is unknown how nanomaterials interact with ecosystems, how to detect them in the environment, or whether they're capable of entering th food chain or being absorbed through the skin.
"We know almost nothing about environmental exposures," Jennifer Sass, a Canadian toxicologist with the Washington-based Natural Resources Defence Council, told The Canadian Press in January.
Questions are also being raised about the ethical and social impacts of human enhancement technologies related to nanotechnology, such as bionic limbs for greater strength or vision, or implanted neural chips for on-demand access to the Internet and software applications—advances that could materialize in the not too distant future.
“Human enhancement—nanotechnology incorporated in the body—is a very interesting issue and many people believe it’s going to be the single most important issue of the 21st century,” says Patrick Lin, director, Ethics + Emerging Technologies Group, based at California Polytechnic State University.
There are privacy concerns as well, Lin says. As nanotech products become increasingly smaller, eavesdropping devices can be made invisible to the naked eye and more mobile, making it easier to invade peoples’ privacy.
“Nanotechnology is helping to shrink down devices. So with nanoelectronics we can expect our devices to be smaller and embeddable into our clothing or even into our person.”
Despite billions of dollars being spent globally on nanotech, various surveys have shown that between 49 and 80 percent of Americans know little or nothing about it, something Lin laments because informed debate is needed on how best to regulate the fast-growing technology.
“The overwhelming majority of people are unaware of what nanotechnology is and this is troubling because it is moving so quickly and is going to be impacting real people’s lives.”
Many in the industry fear that without more research and public awareness there may be an outcry against the use of nanomaterials. In the U.S., environmental groups and businesses such as the NanoBusiness Alliance have called on Washington to develop a “comprehensive road map” to guide federal research on the environmental, health, and safety implications of nanotechnology.
A Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in the United Kingdom found no evidence that nanomaterials have harmed people or the environment. However, it recommended more research to assess the safety of the tiny particles.
Journeay, who has conducted nanotoxicology training for Health Canada scientists, says science needs to get to a point where nanomaterials can be screened, because they are being produced at such a pace it would be virtually impossible for governments to test each and every one of them.
In the meantime, because “Chemical engineers will interpret the toxicology one way and toxicologists will interpret it another way,” companies manufacturing nanomaterials need help to educate themselves, he says.
“Nanotechnology is really a combination of three or four languages, it’s chemistry, it’s biology, it’s toxicology, and companies really need people who can navigate through all areas of this problem. There are just so few people who understand both sides of it—the toxicology and the nanotechnology.”