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Nanotechnology Safety Concerns

There's an old saying: Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. That advice could apply to nanotechnology. Could the promise that nanotechnology holds be a double-edged sword, delivering miracles while causing unanticipated problems?

Think of science fiction books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen. Some mad scientist applies a great new ray (or drug, or procedure) to a fly or a woman, and the fly turns into a man, or the woman grows to be the size of the Empire State Building.

These scary scenarios exist in our science fiction literature for a reason: New science can bring surprising results. Because so much of nanotechnology is new or still under development, various safety concerns have been raised, especially about the use of nanomaterials.

For example, when mice inhale carbon nanotubes, the material lodges in their lungs in a pattern similar to asbestos. What is not known is whether inhaled carbon nanotubes could cause cancer.

If nanoparticles used in creams such as sunscreens could penetrate the outer layer of skin, would they cause damage to cells in the body? To find the answer, the U.S. National Center for Toxicological Research is conducting studies of the toxicity of the nanoparticles used in sunscreens.

Silver nanoparticles are useful in killing off bacteria and are already being used in household products such as cutting boards, detergents, and odor-controlling clothing. Currently, very few regulations about the uses of nanosilver exist. One study by researchers at Purdue University found that silver nanoparticles suspended in a solution were toxic to minnows.

If silver nanoparticles released by detergents or other household products were to be released into our water supply, these incredibly tiny nanoparticles could not only kill fish but also move through fish egg membranes and kill off unborn generations.

Dr. Linda Birnbaum, the director of both the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, has made the following statement about the safety of nanomaterials:

“We currently know very little about nanoscale materials' effect on human health and the environment. The same properties that make nanomaterials so potentially beneficial in drug delivery and product development are some of the same reasons we need to be cautious about their presence in the environment.”

A statement in a paper by Na Gou, Analisa Onnis-Hayden, and April Z. Gu, from Northeastern University, is even more cautionary:

“The recognized and unknown health risks and the harmful environmental impacts associated with the ever-increasing number of engineered nanomaterials in our daily life presents a serious threat to us all. This poses a pressing need for a breakthrough in toxicity-assessment technology because the available methods are neither feasible nor sufficient to provide the timely information needed for regulatory decision making to eliminate these threats.”

Clearly there are serious and very real concerns about the safe implementation of nanotechnology and the use of nanomaterials in our world.

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