Nanomolecules, tens of thousands of which can fit on the tip of a needle, can be surprisingly toxic and are just the right size to integrate themselves into living cells.
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By Rick Weiss Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2004; Page A02
The invisibly small particles and fibers that scientists are producing in the hot new field of nanotechnology pose health and environmental risks great enough to justify banning, for now, certain cosmetics now found on the U.S. market and also halting the deliberate release of nanomaterials into the environment, according to an independent report commissioned by the British government.
Most products of nanotechnology, including atom-scale electronic components and super-strong materials, will probably prove harmless, the report concludes, offering a modicum of reassurance for the nascent research field that has been buffeted by science-fiction scenarios of techno-doom.
But the joint report by Britain's Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering also strongly warns that the manufactured specks at the heart of nanotechnology -- tens of thousands of which can fit on the tip of a needle -- behave in unpredictable ways and in some cases appear surprisingly toxic.
The report recommends that increasingly popular nanoparticle-laden cosmetics be kept off the market until proven safe for use on skin -- a policy more restrictive than the one in place at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The report is also critical of experiments performed in the United States in which nanoparticles have been spread on the ground -- experiments, the report says, that could pose serious risks to organisms in soil and groundwater.
Its advice to manufacturing facilities is to presume that nanoparticles are hazardous until proven otherwise. That means minimizing the release of the particles into standard waste streams and ensuring that workers inhale as few of them as possible.
And it suggests that consumers would be best served by the labeling of products made with nanomaterials -- and by being educated about the science's benefits, lest it meet the same fate of negative public perception that has hobbled nuclear power and genetically engineered foods.
"Nanoparticles can behave quite differently from larger particles of the same material and this can be exploited in a number of exciting ways," said Ann Dowling, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge and chairman of the Royal Society working group that produced the highly anticipated report. "But it is vital that we determine both the positive and negative effects they might have."
The societies advise the British government. Although influential, they have no enforcement powers.
The report is not downbeat on nanotechnology overall. In fact, it echoes the enthusiasm that has been expressed by manufacturing interests and U.S. Commerce Department officials, who have predicted that the technology will power the "next industrial revolution."