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A tiny technology with big implications

ships and whales

Nanomaterials are more than just space-savers; when a normal substance is rebuilt in tiny form, it starts exhibiting unique properties. Nanomaterials dissolve in different ways, take on different magnetic properties, react differently to chemicals, or reflect light differently than they would at normal size.

Nanomaterials can help fabrics resist germs, or make ceramics lighter and stronger. Hundreds of commercial products already contain nanomaterials, including common household items such as mascara, baby wipes, tennis balls, sun screens and paint.

Down the road, scientists expect that nanomaterials will be a key to advancements in medicine, including cancer therapies, as well as in the development of pollution-eating compounds, more durable consumer products, anthrax detectors and fuel cells, among other things.

Unanswered questions about safety

The technology is tiny, but the catch is a big one: no one can say for sure if nanomaterials are safe or not. No one really knows how all those super-small materials behave outside the laboratory, once they're interacting with our environment -- or our bodies. And there is reason to worry.

Many nanomaterials are so small that they can enter the lungs, pass through cell membranes, and possibly penetrate the skin. Once inside the body, they seem to have unlimited access to all tissues and organs, including the brain and possibly fetal circulation.

Not all nanomaterials are alike, but certain ones are cause for concern. Carbon nanotubes, for example, are long and thin and shaped much like cancer-causing asbestos fibers. In animal studies, carbon nanotubes caused lung damage. Other animal studies suggest that nanomaterials can cause inflammation, damage brain cells and cause pre-cancerous lesions. And we already know that ultrafine air pollution, much of which is nano-sized, is associated with reduced lung function and increased likelihood of death from lung and heart disease.

A need to protect consumers and workers

Despite the potential dangers that some nanomaterials pose to the health of consumers and of workers, products containing nanomaterials are entering the market essentially unregulated. Federal oversight laws have not kept up with advances in nanotechnology, and there is no government regulation that can guarantee the safety of these materials. NRDC and labor unions have joined together to call on the Environmental Protection Agency to fully disclose the potential hazards of nanomaterials and take action to workers and consumers; NRDC is also urging the federal government to prohibit the use of untested or unsafe nanomaterials, and place the burden on industry to provide assurances of safety.

Information for consumers

Several hundred products containing nanomaterials are already on the market, including popular brands of cosmetics, sun screens, dietary supplements, home pregnancy tests, food storage containers, home appliances, drugs and medical devices, paints, clothing, air purifiers, food, jewelry, electronics and more.

To find out if a product contains nanomaterials, check the labels for the words "nano" and "ultrafine." For a database of products that contain nanomaterials, visit http://www.nanotechproject.org.

last revised 9/13/2007

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