Those stain-resistant khakis you just picked up at the mall, the
tennis ball that holds its bounce longer and sunscreen that’s clear
instead of white have something in common — nanotechnology.
Scientists manipulating matter at the molecular level have improved
on hundreds of everyday products in recent years and are promising
dramatic breakthroughs in medicine and other industries as billions of
dollars a year are pumped into the nascent sector.
But relatively little is known about the potential health and
environmental effects of the tiny particles — just atoms wide and
small enough to easily penetrate cells in lungs, brains and other
While governments and businesses have begun pumping millions of
dollars into researching such effects, scientists and others say
nowhere near enough is being spent to determine whether nanomaterials
pose a danger to human health.
Michael Crichton’s bestselling book Prey paints a
doomsday scenario in which a swarm of tiny nanomachines escapes the lab
and threatens to overwhelm humanity. Scientists believe the potential
threat from nanomaterials is more everyday than a sci-fi thriller, but
no less serious.
Studies have shown that some of the most promising carbon
nanoparticles — including long, hollow nanotubes and sphere-shaped
buckyballs — can be toxic to animal cells. There are fears that
exposure can cause breathing problems, as occurs with some other
ultrafine particles, that nanoparticles could be inhaled through the
nose, wreaking unknown havoc on brain cells, or that nanotubes placed
on the skin could damage DNA.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is
developing guidelines for working with nanomaterials, saying the tiny
particles may raise health concerns and the risk to those who work with
them is unknown.
Also unknown is the risk to consumers and the environment.