August 24, 2009

Come the (nano)revolution, let’s know the risks

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They’re everywhere – those tiny, really tiny, particles that can do everything from making cooking oil last longer to keeping drill bits sharp, and the Bay Area is the epicenter of the “nanorevolution,” writes Steve Johnson in the San Jose Mercury News. Johnson lists a fascninating and wildly divergent list of projects using nanotechnology, some already in production, some still in research phase, including researchers studying whether nanoparticles can be used to hunt out and kill tumors or clean up chemical waste sites. Ten percent of the companies, universities and other groups in the nation that have jumped into nanotechnology are in or near the Silicon Valley, a new study by the nonprofit Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. shows.

“The Bay Area is the epicenter of the nanorevolution in the U.S.,” said David Rejeski, who directs the center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts. “This is how we’re going to make things over the next 50 to 100 years. This is huge economically.”

 Yet while the potential upside is huge, and more than 600 products on the market already incorporate some nanotechnology, “not everyone is ecstatic about the trend,” Johnson notes.

Environmentalists have voiced fears that nanomaterials could pose serious health threats, and the National Research Council in December issued a report saying the government has failed to fully assess such risks. To determine the potential danger of using carbon nanotubes, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control in January asked companies involved in the technology in the state to report any problems the tiny materials may have caused and how the firms are monitoring the particles’ safety.

Yeah, I get it. If we’re eating these particles. And sharpening our tools with them. And curing cancer with them….  It might fall into the ‘too good to be true’ category for some people. Good idea to know the risks as we move forward.

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