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Safeguard on nanotechnology

Congress must fund safety research for this atom-manipulating industry.

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Nanotechnology is producing exciting products, with one estimate that 15 percent of goods worldwide will involve such molecular engineering by 2014. But that won't come easily if its pioneers don't first address safety concerns.

The perception (true or not) of health and environmental problems, such as often surrounds genetically modified crops, could easily turn off consumers to the many benefits that nano-products offer. The risk of a backlash to this emerging field could delay or even wreck the introduction of revolutionary new products.

Nanotechnology is already out of the lab, with three to four new nano-products entering the marketplace each week, according to the nonprofit Project on Emerging Nanotechnology. More than 600 products boast of nanotech content, PEN says, from teddy bears to cosmetics to the Xbox 360 video-game console.

Substances reduced to nanoscale (1- to 100- billionths of a meter) show unusual properties. They can become much stronger or turn light into heat, for example. But because they expose more surface area to chemical interaction, there are concerns about unknown effects.

Some studies that have been done raise concerns. For example, nanosilver, tiny particles of silver that multiply that substance's known ability to kill bacteria, has already been put into socks and covers the surfaces of washing machines, acting as an antiseptic. One recent study showed that the nanosilver escapes into wash water and from there into the environment. Another study revealed nanosilver could kill helpful bacteria used to clean water at treatment plants.

Earlier this month a coalition of consumer, health, and environmental groups petitioned the Food and Drug Administration asking that it ban the sale of products containing nanosilver. More than 200 are already on the market.


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