Electronic Design

Proceed With Caution

There are increasing concerns about the possible ill effects nanotechnology can have on society, the environment, and human health. Industry and the government face demands for more investigations into these issues and the need for regulations.

While nanotechnology promises many benefits, it also could lead to a number of hazards. These potential dangers have been a major roadblock toward nanotechnology's commercialization.

Studies on how nanomaterials could affect the environment or human physiology have been far and few between. The same ability that allows nanotechnology to travel throughout the human body for positive medical research purposes also makes it potentially harmful. Nanoparticles less than 20 mm in diameter can be inhaled into nasal passages and travel up into the brain, bypassing the blood/brain barrier. Such materials are potentially harmful and toxic.

Of the research that's been done in this category, results prove worrisome. Researchers found that small concentrations of about 20 parts/billion of the common carbon nano structure C60 (buckyballs) killed one-half of human liver and skin cells in laboratory samples.

Other studies show that C60 damages brain cells in fish and halts the growth of bacteria. Remember, much of the bacteria surrounding us is beneficial, and only some of it is harmful.

That said, one major issue emerges: Standardizing the criteria for characterizing nano particle size. How do you determine size? What methodology do you use? What tools are needed for measurement?

As a result, the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory is collaborating with the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to find methods of analyzing and measuring nanomaterials in various stages.

For now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are funding studies on the health and environmental risks posed by nanomaterials. However, only about 4% of the U.S. federal budget is being spent in this area.

Many concerned scientists and other observers believe that figure should be at least 10%. Elsewhere, the United Kingdom's Royal Society of Engineering and the European Union are calling for rules that will limit if not totally prevent the negative impact nanomaterials will have on society.

Early this year, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars released a report confirming that little is known about the possible detrimental effects of nanotechnology. Existing U.S. laws like the Toxic Substances Act don't provide a basis for addressing new environmental concerns raised by nanotechnology, the study found.

The report also says that a law is needed to specifically address those issues. The law would require manufacturers to submit a sustainability plan that shows that a nanotechnology product won't present an unacceptable risk.

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