36 Nanotech Risks Seriously Worry Scientists
$1.2Bn For Nano Initiative, Only $44M for Safety Research
"Magic Nano" turned out not to be so magical after all. The cleaning product sold by the German company Kleinmann GmbH made headlines when it caused respiratory distress in more than 100 consumers last spring, leading to its swift removal from the market. Although the product didn't contain nanoparticles-the problems were ultimately traced to the formation of a super-thin film-the incident put the concept of nanomaterials (which incorporate particles or components measuring less than 100 nanometers, or about 1/250,000 inch) squarely in the public eye and raised the question of how to harness their potential while addressing their potential risks.
More than 200 consumer products around the world are described as nanotech-based, according to the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies. On small scales, substances often behave much differently than they do in their familiar forms, and toxicology and safety studies of these products are still in the early stages. "Good science takes time," says Sally Tinkle, assistant to the deputy director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the NIH. "We're asking the right questions about our regulatory frameworks, but we do not have enough scientific data yet to know if they need to be changed and, if so, how to change them in a way that would be more effective." Time may be running out, says David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. "Five or six years ago, this was a story about science. Now it's a story about consumer products," he says. "This is the beginning of a tidal wave of nano-based products."
So far, more effort has been put into promoting the economic potential of nanomaterials than in exploring possible hazards. The Bush administration's 2007 budget request includes $1.2 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative but just $44 million for nanotechnology toxicology and safety research. "How many Magic Nano stories have to appear before people get upset and start to lose confidence?" Rejeski says. "The thing that I fear is that we're investing in a $200,000 car, and we've taken out a $10,000 insurance policy."
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