On a chilly Chicago afternoon in early May, environmental activists sauntered into the Eddie Bauer store on Michigan Avenue, headed to the broad storefront windows opening out on the Magnificent Mile and proceeded to take off their clothes.

The strip show aimed to expose more than skin: Activists hoped to lay bare growing allegations of the toxic dangers of nanotechnology. The demonstrators bore the message in slogans painted on their bodies, proclaiming “Eddie Bauer hazard” and “Expose the truth about nanotech,” among other things, in light of the clothing company’s embrace of nanotech in its recent line of stain-resistant “nanopants.”

The Eddie Bauer protest highlights a growing movement aimed at probing the potential health risks of nanotechnology, which is finding its way into commercial products despite scant research into its long-term effects. While still nascent, the backlash recalls other environmental challenges to new technologies, notably genetically modified foods, which have spawned grass-roots opposition movements amid fierce denials from companies that their products are harmful.

Nanotechnology broadly refers to engineering at microscopic scales. By manipulating materials at the molecular level, scientists can enhance them with new properties that go beyond those available in ordinary substances.

Examples of nanomaterials already on the market include nanoscale titanium dioxide used in some cosmetics and sunscreens, nanoscale silica being used as dental fillers, and nanowhiskers used in stain-resistant fabrics like Eddie Bauer’s nanopants. Plus, nanoclays and coatings are being used in a range of products from tennis balls to bikes to cars to improve bounce, strengthen high-impact parts or render material scratch-proof. Nanotechnology could one day give rise to microscopic machines, some theorize.

Fears of a nanotech date back at least to 1986, with the publication of Eric Drexler’s cautionary classic, Engines of Creation, and its talk of a potential “gray goo” catastrophe brought on by millions of uncontrolled, destructive microscopic machines that chew through the environment.

That apocalyptic vision is a world away from nanopants. Asked about the potential dangers of its technology, Eddie Bauer offered a product backgrounder from Emeryville, California-based Nano-Tex, which provides the coating used in its stain-resistant pants. The backgrounder asserts that Nano-Tex’s products are independently tested for safety and meet all environmental, health and safety standards mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In an e-mail, Nano-Tex challenged negative claims made in the Eddie Bauer protest regarding its products, and reiterated the claims in its backgrounder. But it declined to make a representative available to answer questions for this article, and did not answer specific questions sent in an e-mail.

According to the backgrounder, Nano-Tex’s proprietary technology was developed for commercial use in 2000. Its technology allows coatings to adhere to fabrics at the sub-micron level, reducing the amount of chemicals required to treat materials, and transferring properties such as stain resistance onto each individual fiber. Nano-Tex said more than 80 textile mills around the world use its technology in products sold under dozens of major clothing and some furniture brands, including Eddie Bauer, The Gap, Old Navy, Lee, Nike, Nordstrom, Brooks Brothers, Champion, Levi, Simmons and Serta.

Although Nano-Tex asserts its products meet government standards, experts note that little research has yet been conducted into the effects of nanotech materials on humans, leaving lots of questions and few answers. Governments and institutions around the world are only now rolling up their sleeves and conducting the experiments necessary to separate fact from fear, experts said.

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