Nanotech Safety, Side Effects, & Health Risks Study Urged

U.S. panel calls for probe into nanotech’s safety, health risks: It’s become a multibillion industry and sales are expected to expand rapidly in the next decade.

Currently, it’s used in a growing number of state-of-the-art products like special zinc oxide sunscreens that seem to glide on the skin, extremely high-memory computer hard discs, non-friction swimsuits that help Olympic athletes swim faster, and catalytic converter components for cars that remove pollutive particles even before these can be released into the air.

It also promises to revolutionize medicine and health care, electronics and computers, energy production and conservation, environmental cleanup and protection, and world security and defense.

Nanotechnology, involving the design and manufacture of materials on the tiny scale of one-billionth of a meter — one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair or less — is now used in areas ranging from stain-resistant clothing and cosmetics to food additives.

The Nanotechnology product sales reached US$225 billion in 2009 and the market is expected to grow to US$3 trillion by 2015.

But not enough is known about their potential environmental and health risks — and this should be studied further, says an expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in a report released on Jan. 25.

The wonders of nanotechnology bring amazing products like ultrathin LCD flat screens, high-tech product scanners, clothing and cosmetics.

But nanotech products can seep into the environment during manufacturing or disposal. They can also be ingested, inhaled or maybe absorbed through the skin, warns the panel of 19 scientists in its reports, published after a review of nanotechnology’s current state.

The panel was commissioned by the National Research Council (NRC), NAS’s research arm, to conduct the study. This was done at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Despite the promise of nanotechnology, without strategic research into emergent risks associated with it—and a clear understanding of how to manage and avoid potential risks—the future of safe and sustainable nanotechnology-based materials, products, and processes is uncertain,” the NAS says in its study report.

The report says that “critical gaps” in the understanding of the environmental, health and safety effects of engineered nanotechnology materials (ENMs) need to be closed.

How many nanoparticles of different kinds are being released into the environment? Who is being exposed to them? These basic questions still to be probed, the panel notes.

“There are some significant gaps that we need to address in order to move forward,” says Rebecca Klaper, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee ecologist, one of the report’s authors.

Insufficient research has been done on the health effects of ENMs that have been swallowed, inhaled or absorbed by humans, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control says there are indications “that nanoparticles can penetrate the skin or move from the respiratory system to other organs.”

“At this time, the limited evidence available suggests caution when potential exposures to nanoparticles may occur,” the CDC says on its website.

The panel also laments that, right now, there is little research on the potential damage from more-complex ENMs that are expected to come into the market in the next decade.

More, the complexity of ENMs and their coatings make them challenging to assess as risks, the report notes. For example, a nanomaterial can change its surface properties depending on where it is, such as in lung fluid or air, the study says.

Without a coordinated research plan to help guide efforts to manage and avoid potential risks, the safety and sustainability of nanotechnology is uncertain, the panel says.

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