The fledgling field of nanotechnology has skyrocketed during the past 15 years, and hundreds of tons of products containing the tiny particles are already making their way to market.
But the impacts on health and the environment are very poorly understood. Concern is rising rapidly in some quarters as some of the first research shows unexpected results, including serious health effects and environmental damage.
The rapid development of the field, and the tradeoffs between risks and benefits, remind some observers of the early years of genetic engineering.
Media stories are beginning to pop up regularly. Here is a brief backgrounder to help you join the fray.
Nanotechnology is a field that creates products out of incredibly small substances. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology is generally defined as dealing with substances ranging from about 0.1 nanometer (about the size of a hydrogen atom) to about 100 nanometers (about the size of a virus).
The small size of these substances is one of the primary concerns of nano-watchers. Basic properties of physics, biology, and chemistry simply are different at this scale. This suggests to some that standard methods of assessing how nanoparticles will behave won't translate.
These concerns have been ratcheted up several notches by some early studies. One found that certain nanoparticles known as "buckyballs" damaged the brains and genes of fish after just 48 hours of exposure, and also killed little critters called water fleas. Other studies have found that nanoparticles can move rapidly in soil and groundwater.
In animals, studies show that nanoparticles can move across the placenta from mother to fetus; move from the nasal passage to the brain; act as potent lung damagers; accumulate in cells and creatures; and create free radicals and damage DNA. Highlights of studies, from the Winnipeg-based advocacy group ETC Group.
On the other hand, some environmental benefits may be possible through nanotechnology, including improved solar collectors, more effective cleanup of contaminated soil and water, and better detection of pesticide residues.
Seventeen US government agencies belong to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which is just beginning to look at environmental and health issues. National Nanotechnology Coordination Office: Cate Alexander, 703-292-4399, NNCO Director discusses safety, regulation of nanoscale materials.
The federal American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center, still in its formative stages, is supposed to be the central organization investigating the environmental, ethical, and societal effects of nanotechnology.
Meetings at which journalists can learn more about nanotech occur regularly somewhere in the world. One of these is a workshop sponsored by the US Institute of Medicine, which will bring together many interested parties: May 27, 2004, in Washington, DC, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., National Academies' Keck Center, 500 5th St., NW, Room 100. Pre-registration is requested, 202-334-2138 or email.
ETC Group will release a study on food, agriculture, and nanotechnology at the end of May 2004. ETC: Pat Mooney, 204-453-5259.
A number of studies looking at angles such as transport in the environment, interactions with biological systems, and environmental engineering are likely to appear in the next few months. Rice Univ.'s Center for Biological and Environmental Technology: Kristen Kulinowski, 713-348-8211, Environmental and Health Effects of Nanomaterials.
The United Kingdom's Royal Society is expected to release a major report on the tradeoffs of nanotechnology in late July or early Aug. 2004.
The journal Environmental Science & Technology will publish a special issue on nanotechnology in the fall of 2004.
In addition to these news hooks, some reporters can cover local nanotech developments. About 2 dozen research centers are scattered around the US (click on "Nanotechnology Centers" in left column). And the industry magazine Small Times says 16 states are likely to be major nano hotspots: AZ, CA, CO, IL, MA, MD, MI, NC, NJ, NM, NY, OH, PA, TX, VA, WA.
OTHER STORY ANGLES
Engineered nanoparticles are just part of the picture. Researchers are also finding that the tiny substances are created in natural settings. One example.
There are many business angles. One media example. Many other business angles can be gleaned at Nanotechnology Now.
Among dozens of products already in the marketplace is a soil stabilizer made by Sequoia Pacific Research Company.