As we’ve noted before, research on nanotechnology safety has lagged behind the use of nanomaterials in consumer products. Three recent stories describe the potential rewards and risks of nanotechnology and some of the efforts to learn more about nanomaterials’ effects on humans and our environment.

Much of the use of nanotechnology in today’s consumer products is of questionable value to society – the tiny particles are used to make tennis rackets more lightweight, skin cream more sheer, and socks less smelly. But nanomaterials also hold great promise for making solar cells and water filtration, which can help tackle the global problems of climate disruption and insufficient clean drinking water. Researchers are also studying the use of nanomaterials in cancer therapies, and Health Affairs has just published an interview with Nelson Alderson, the associate commissioner for science at FDA’s Office of Science and Health Coordination, in which Alderson explains how nanoparticles can target disease (access is free online until 7/1).

Carole Bass’s article in Yale Environment 360 focuses on the risks of nanotechnology, and provides a list of concerns raised in the last month alone about the use of nanomaterials. Bass also gives a pithy explanation of why we ought to be cautious:

Nanomaterials are so small that they travel easily, both in the body and in the environment. Their tiny size and high surface area give them unusual characteristics: insoluble materials become soluble; nonconductive ones start conducting electricity; harmless substances can become toxic.

Nanoparticles are easily inhaled. They can pass from the lungs into the bloodstream and other organs. They can even slip through the olfactory nerve into the brain, evading the protective blood-brain barrier. It’s not clear whether they penetrate the skin. Once they’re inside the body, it’s not clear how long they remain or what they do. What’s more, current science has no way of testing for nano-waste in the air or water, and no way of cleaning up such pollution.

She notes that the European Union has just released a current document explaining how nanorisks can be dealt with under its strict new REACH law; for one thing, companies introducing a nano form of a substance already in use must provide additional research about the risk and hazards of the nano version.

As usual, the U.S. is moving more slowly on this potential health hazard, but we are at least inching forward. In Chemical & Engineering News, Britt E. Erickson describes HR 5940, which garnered 407 votes in the House earlier this month and now goes to the Senate. The legislation would launch a public database of environmental, health, and safety nanotech research; create a senior-level position within the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy to oversee that research; and establish an independent advisory council made up of people with the expertise to address the environmental health and safety issues at hand. Both industry and environmental groups supported the House bill, and Erickson reports that the nanotech community expects quick Senate action on it.

Over the next few years, we can expect to see even more nano products and applications on the market – more than 600 consumer products already contain nano materials, Bass reports. The questions are, how much more will we know about the risks, and will we be doing enough to minimize them?

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