Thinking tiny while playing it safe

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Nanotechnology, the science of the incredibly small, already has sneaked into hundreds of products from stain-resistant pants to tough golf clubs. That's only a hint of what's possible. But not unless questions about safety are addressed – and soon.

Last year, more than $32 billion in products with nanotech materials were sold worldwide. By 2014, some $2.6 trillion in manufactured goods could contain nanotechnologies, according to Lux Research, which tracks the industry.

For example, by making materials stronger, lighter, and cheaper, nanotech could produce huge breakthroughs in the production, transmission, and storage of energy; in ridding the atmosphere of its excess carbon dioxide; and in medical devices and treatments.

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Nanotechnology operates at a scale of about 1/100,000 the width of a human hair. At that size, materials act differently, offering the possibility to create unique products with new properties.

But those same advantages bring the potential for new hazards. One much discussed scenario, that tiny self-replicating nanomachines might accidentally or maliciously be set loose and quickly transform the world into nothing more than lifeless "gray goo," now has been rejected by the scientist who put forth the theory.

But real concerns remain. The unique surface areas, chemistry, solubility, and shape of nanoparticles make them potential hazards. The known trouble with tiny asbestos particles suggests that the shape of nanotubes, nanowires, and nanofibers might make them dangerous as well if set free in the environment.

If the public loses confidence in the safety of nanotech, or if it becomes subject to lawsuits, progress in this groundbreaking science could grind to a halt. That needn't happen.

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency took a first step toward regulation. It asked that manufacturers of "nanosilver" conduct studies to prove that these minuscule silver particles won't harm bodies of water or human health. Nanosilver is being used to kill harmful bacteria in products such as air fresheners, washing machines, and shoe liners.

But much more must be done. In a seminal Nov. 16 article in Nature, a group of 14 international scientists, led by Andrew Maynard of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, urged researchers to tackle five safety-related "grand challenges" in nanotechnology over the next 15 years.

They include developing ways to detect nanomaterials in the air and water, learning how the shape of nanomaterials affects their toxicity, creating accurate models for predicting how nanomaterials act in the human body and the environment, and finding ways to engineer nanomaterials so that they are safe by design.

Both the chairman and ranking minority member of the House Science Committee have endorsed the paper and urged the White House and federal agencies to put together a plan to fund the scientists' recommendations in the fiscal 2008 budget.

The need to act is urgent. Otherwise the enormous benefits of nanotech risk falling victim to safety issues that could – and should – have been confronted already.

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