As the world marvels at non-smelling socks,more effective sunscreens and other products made possible with nanotechnology,researchers are questioning whether this tiny science of the future may have a huge impact on the environment and human health.
According to a2007report by Jennifer Sass,a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council,nanoscale silver ions,like the ones used in non-smelling socks,kill the microbes that cause odor.However,such commercial use permits these ions to enter the waste system and eventually the environment,killing beneficial microbes in the soil.
In order to research more into these unintended consequences,UC Davis is competing for a$25milliongrant from the National Science Foundation to build a nanotechnology center,devoted to furtherstudy oftheenvironmental and health effects of nanomaterials.
Currently,UC Davis is one of three semifinalistsforthe grant.Starting with30proposals,the university has survived each step of the competition.The final step is a presentation inWashingtonD.C.where UC Davis will hopefully be chosen as a finalist,said UC Davis professor Alexandra Navrotsky.
UC Davis‘ place in the competition can be attributed to the studies of dust particles by professors Kent Pinkerton and Ian Kennedy.For the past12years,they have studied the effects of nanomaterials such as dust particles on lung tissue and howthey affectthe respiratory system.
Nanotechnology refers to the study of nanomaterials,particles measuredin only billionths of a meter– forexample,thehead of a pin is onlyone millimeterlong,which is1million nanometers.Nanotechnology’s potentialfor advancing technologyis nearly limitless.Its applicationsalsorange from medical to technological.Once thought toexist only in science fiction,robots floating in the blood stream andtargeting cancer cells may become a reality with thisfledglingscience.
However,the consequences of nanomaterials are still not fully understood.The problemwith nanotechnologycomes fromits unique size.Because the particles are so small,nanoscale materials have larger surface areas and therefore dissolve in different ways,have different magnetic properties,or react differently to chemicals,possibly making them more toxic than their normal-sized counterparts,said Sass.
Aside from beingmore toxic,nanomaterials are extremely mobile,allowing them to pass into the bloodstreamthroughinhaling,swallowing or even skin contact.And because of their size,they have access to most or all tissues andorgans,even the brain.
Studies show an association between airborne nanoscale pollutants with human ailments such as asthma attacks,heart disease,strokes and respiratory disease.Cell studies indicate that other nanomaterials have the potential to interfere with cellular DNA,causing inflammation andimpairing cellular function.
Despite the possible consequences of nanomaterials,manufacturers have added these particles to their products because their benefits are unrivaled.There are at least400products on the market today containing nanomaterials,according to the2007report.
Sunscreen,skin lotion,house paint and diesel fuel all contain nanomaterialsand can be purchased almost anywhere.
“Given[that] the early nanotoxicology studies suggest nanomaterials have the potential to be harmful,until we know the risks,these products should be presumed dangerous to consumers and to the workers who are exposed to them during product development,production use and disposal,” said Sass.
As of now,regulation on these nanomaterials is limited.The U.S.Environmental Protection Agency has authorized the commercial use of15of these particles,even though information is limited to the public.
“The environmental risks these nanomaterials pose is too great without government regulation.There needs to be an equal balance between consumerism and safety,” said Lauren Skilken,incomingenvironmental lawgraduate student.
It is unclear whether researchers believe that the benefits of nanotechnology outweigh the possible environmental impacts and health issues.
“All technology has good points and bad points.Thekey is to use the good points and be aware of the bad points,” said Navrotsky.
NICK MARKWITH can be reached email@example.com.XXX