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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Hundreds of tons of nanomaterials were manufactured last year in the United States and the U.S. market is expected to top $1 trillion within a decade.
The field is an outgrowth of a newfound ability to manipulate individual atoms and create molecular devices smaller than human cells. At that scale, materials have different chemical and physical properties than those of identical materials in bulk. Carbon atoms, for example, when woven into hollow microscopic threads, can conduct electricity and are stronger than steel. Other nanomaterials look promising as drug delivery vehicles, environmental cleanup tools and in computer hard drives. Nanoparticles boost the ultraviolet-light-blocking power of sunscreens and cosmetics.
But because of their sometimes extreme chemical reactivity -- and because they are just the right size to integrate themselves into living cells -- nanoparticles make some scientists and activists nervous.
Preliminary experiments in animals have found nanoparticles capable of moving into and damaging the lungs, brain and other organs. And while some nanomaterials may be able to neutralize poisons in soil or groundwater, others appear environmentally toxic themselves.
U.S. regulations relating to worker safety, environmental protection, cosmetics sales and drug approvals have not been adapted to address the novel traits of these materials, in part because it has proven difficult to predict which nanomaterials pose risks. But several agencies have begun to conduct safety studies.
"I think we have an appropriate level of research and development underway to look into potential risks associated with nanoscale materials," said E. Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, which advises the federal cabinet on nanotech.
Among the projects underway, Teague noted, is one on titanium dioxide, tiny particles of which are now found in some sunscreens. The report says that is the one nanomaterial already adequately tested in cosmetics. Cosmetics containing others, including zinc oxide and iron oxide, should not be sold until similarly tested, the report recommended.
Linda M. Katz, director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, said the agency is examining the issue and expects results within two years. She said the agency is not aware of any reports of illness or injury associated with nano-containing cosmetics.
Cosmetics manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the safety of their products, Katz said, and the agency does not have a list of products that contain nanomaterials.
Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Michael Brown said his agency will review the report as it devises new regulatory strategies for nanomaterials.
"EPA is aware of this emerging technology," he said, "and we agree that it is important to develop the appropriate regulatory oversight to ensure protection of public health and the environment."