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Posted Friday, June 22, 2007
CR investigates potential benefits, possible health and environmental risks of new technology
Yonkers, NY — Nanotechnology promises to be the most important innovation since electricity and the internal combustion engine. But some applications might pose substantial risks to human health and the environment, according to the July issue of Consumer Reports.
Nanomaterials are already being used in consumer products such as car wax, computer chips, and sunscreen and about $2.6 trillion worth of goods worldwide are expected to use nanotech by 2014, up from $50 billion in 2006.
But the risks of nanotechnology have been largely unexplored, and government and industry monitoring has been minimal. Moreover, consumers have been left in the dark, since manufacturers are not required to disclose the presence of nanomaterials in their labeling.
Nanotechnology involves creating new materials or reducing the particles in standard materials to sizes as small as a nanometer, or about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. At this size, the characteristics of materials change, carbon becomes 100 times stronger than steel, aluminum turns highly explosive, and gold melts at room temperature, for example. New characteristics such as these can be used to bring positive changes to consumer products. But in some cases, they may make benign materials toxic and toxic ones more hazardous.
The July issue also features a report on sunscreens, involving CR’s tests of 19 products at outside labs. Eight of them listed zinc oxide or titanium dioxide on the label, which could indicate the presence of nanoparticles. A test of those 8 sunscreens found that all contained nanoparticles, but only one disclosed the presence of nano-zinc oxide. And the tests revealed no correlation between effectiveness and the presence of those ingredients.
Vast Potential vs. Possible Risks
In health and medicine, testing is underway on nanodelivery systems that might precisely target tumors and which might improve the treatment of cancer. A filter with nanosized pores could permit creation of a wearable or implantable artificial kidney. Researchers are developing contact lenses with a color-shifting sensor that would let people with diabetes check their blood sugar just by glancing in a mirror.
Nanotech solutions might lead to clean energy sources and help protect the environment. “Intelligent” nanocoatings that reflect solar heat in summer and transmit it in the winter are already available. So are nanotech methods of removing pollutants from water supplies.
Numerous consumer products using nanotechnology may already be a part of consumers’ everyday lives. Two examples: About 60 percent of cars now have fuel lines made with carbon nanotubes, which might reduce the risk of explosions by inhibiting static electricity. And Home Depot sells Behr paint, which supposedly contains nanoingredients that resist mildew and grease stains.
Although no confirmed cases of harm to humans from manufactured nanoparticles have been reported, there is cause for concern based on several worrisome findings from the limited laboratory and animal research so far. For example:
The full report is available in the July 2007 issue of Consumer Reports, which is available wherever magazines are sold. Portions of the story are available for free online at www.ConsumerReports.org.
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