Some experts push cautious approach as market keeps expanding
Less than two decades old, the nanotech industry is booming. Nanoparticles — measured in billionths of a meter — are already found in thousands of consumer products, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, anti-microbial infant toys, sports equipment, food packaging and electronics. In addition to producing transparent sunscreens, nanomaterials help make light and sturdy tennis rackets, clothes that don’t stain and stink-free socks.
The particles can alter how products look or function because matter behaves differently at the nanoscale, taking on unique and mysterious chemical and physical properties. Materials made of nanoparticles may be more conductive, stronger or more chemically reactive than those containing larger particles of the same compound.
“Everything old becomes new when miniaturized,” said Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University. “This gives scientists a new playground, one focused on determining what those differences are and how they could be used to make things better.”
But the development of applications for nanotechnology is rapidly outpacing what scientists know about safe use. The unusual properties that make nanoscale materials attractive may also pose unexpected risks to human health and the environment, according to scientific literature on the subject.
“We haven’t characterized these materials very well yet in terms of what the potential impacts on living organisms could be,” said Kathleen Eggleson, a research scientist at the Center for Nano Science and Technology at the University of Notre Dame.