Size Matters

I don’t know about you, but when I read about nanoparticles that can be engineered to be 50,000 times thinner than human hair, or surgical tools that can operate at the molecular level, it fills me with both wonder and dread. It’s the stuff of science fiction. Science alright, but no longer fiction.

While using nanotechnology to target cancer cells and expand solar power presents hopeful possibilities for the future of medicine and renewable energy, there is much we don’t know about how these tiny particles behave in our bodies and in our environment. Yet we’re using them all the time. There are nanoparticles in our tennis racquets and sweat socks, in our sunscreens and supplements—they’re in there to help fend off germs and smells, reduce redness and increase products’ longevity. But what happens when they penetrate our skin? Or end up in our waterways?

Unfortunately, no one yet knows. But because there’s huge money to be made in nanotech, regulation has been slow in coming. Research is heavily focused on creating new uses for the technology—not on figuring out how these particles might run amok. Our government spends $1.5 billion each year on nanotechnology, but only 1% to 2.5% is set aside for studying environmental, health and safety risks. And there is no large national strategy guiding the development of nanotechnology to ensure our safety.

The small amount of safety research that has been performed has shown frightening results. British research last year found that nanoparticles could be inhaled and lodge in the lungs, similar to asbestos. These miniscule particles could then pass through the blood-brain barrier, thanks to their size—too small to be blocked by the body’s defenses. Industrial workers are at particular risk, but so is the rest of society because nanoparticles move, travel and transfer from product to person and from person to water system, with relative ease. Particles from our shampoo and sunscreen may wash down the drain and kill off the “good bugs’ in our sewage treatment plants.

We’ve written before about other scientific advances—like biotechnology—that have come on the scene and moved full-speed ahead with hardly any public scrutiny of potential consequences. When it comes to nanotechnology, the U.S. has been incredibly slow to set limitations. Consider this: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, whose job it is to regulate nanotech, has so far taken almost no action. The Food and Drug Administration should be regulating the products under its purview, too—food, beverages and cosmetics—and it, too has done little, though consumer advocacy groups have asked for at least a label letting buyers know what’s hiding in their makeup and energy drinks.

There may need to a be a combined agency to handle the complex research and regulation required for the rapidly expanding nanotechnology sector; and new laws in place demanding full disclosure from companies until we can be sure about nanotech’s side effects. As we’ve learned in the past when companies are allowed to regulate themselves, the environment and public health are often the first casualties.