Worth Repeating: Nano-Risks: A Big Need for a Little Testing

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The EPA must act swiftly to evaluate the possible health risks of nanotechnology

A decade ago the great worry about nanotechnology was that it could quite literally destroy the planet. As Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy warned in his essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” self-assembling nanobots could potentially spread out of our control (Mis-)programmed to replicate ad infinitum, these subsentient bots would spread across the landscape as a gray goo of devastation, consuming the earth and every unlucky creature who called it home.

Nowadays we can only wish that our planet-dooming scenarios were so far-fetched. Our existential worries revolve around the all too immediate problems of global warming and disease, and nanotechnology—incorporated into improved solar panels, wind turbines or drug delivery mechanisms—could, if anything, emerge as an important tool to fight these threats.

Yet like any new technology, nanomaterials carry with them potential both for good and for harm. The most salient worries concern not a gray goo apocalypse but rather the more prosaic and likely possibility that some of these novel materials may turn out to be hazardous to our health or the environment. Because ordinary materials display unique properties at the nanoscale, the nanometer-size bits of a seemingly benign material might turn out to be noxious. As John D. Young and Jan Martel report in “The Rise and Fall of Nanobacteria,” even naturally occurring nanoparticulates can have an deleterious effect on the human body. If natural nanoparticulates can harm us, we would be wise to carefully consider the possible actions of engineered nanomaterials. The size of nanoparticles also means that they can more readily escape into the environment and infiltrate deep into internal organs such as the lungs and liver. Adding to the concern, each nanomaterial is unique. Although researchers have conducted a number of studies on the health risks of individual materials, this scattershot approach cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the hazards—quantitative data on what materials, in what concentrations, affect the body over what timescales.

In response to this uncertainty, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a grand research strategy to study the health and environmental effects of nanomaterials, a welcome step that many have been advocating for years. We hope that the program will help build a robust database that will give policy makers and the public the facts needed to understand the possible health risks that specific nanomaterials might create. And although it would be unwise to rush careful research efforts, speed is paramount. According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, more than 1,000 consumer products containing nanomaterials are available in the U.S., a number that is quickly growing.

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