Nanotechnology is producing exciting products, with one estimate that 15 percent of goods worldwide will involve such molecular engineering by 2014. But that won't come easily if its pioneers don't first address safety concerns.
The perception (true or not) of health and environmental problems, such as often surrounds genetically modified crops, could easily turn off consumers to the many benefits that nano-products offer. The risk of a backlash to this emerging field could delay or even wreck the introduction of revolutionary new products.
Nanotechnology is already out of the lab, with three to four new nano-products entering the marketplace each week, according to the nonprofit Project on Emerging Nanotechnology. More than 600 products boast of nanotech content, PEN says, from teddy bears to cosmetics to the Xbox 360 video-game console.
Substances reduced to nanoscale (1- to 100- billionths of a meter) show unusual properties. They can become much stronger or turn light into heat, for example. But because they expose more surface area to chemical interaction, there are concerns about unknown effects.
Some studies that have been done raise concerns. For example, nanosilver, tiny particles of silver that multiply that substance's known ability to kill bacteria, has already been put into socks and covers the surfaces of washing machines, acting as an antiseptic. One recent study showed that the nanosilver escapes into wash water and from there into the environment. Another study revealed nanosilver could kill helpful bacteria used to clean water at treatment plants.
Earlier this month a coalition of consumer, health, and environmental groups petitioned the Food and Drug Administration asking that it ban the sale of products containing nanosilver. More than 200 are already on the market.
Such concerns make a recent move by the US House's science committee all the more puzzling. A few weeks ago that panel approved billions of dollars to develop nanotechnology but failed to fund research into possible environmental, health, and safety (EHS) effects.
Early versions of the bill set aside 10 percent of the funds for EHS research. But opponents successfully removed it, despite support from environmentalists and prominent voices within the industry. It would serve the industry better if that provision were restored.
The bill does establish a watchdog within the White House science office, which would urge close attention to safety research. But that isn't enough.
All this is not to say that any current product necessarily is unsafe. The point is that not enough is known to be sure. Commercialization has outstripped safety studies.
PEN estimates that only about $13 million – less than 1 percent – of the $1.4 billion in federal nano-research funds spent in 2006 paid directly for environmental- or health-related studies. That's a little more than half of what's being spent in Europe.
The industry must also guard against false perceptions. Two years ago in Germany, more than 100 people who used a sealant called "Magic Nano" fell ill. The product was not created by nanotechnology but simply used the name.
Before fear outpaces science and society loses out on new products, Congress and the industry must speed up safety research.