Nanotechnology in question

Nanotechnology is already here, yet most of us know nothing about it.
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  • Updated:22 Jun 2007

01 .Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology spiral

In brief

  • From whitegoods to textiles, cosmetics to electronics, nanotechnology-based products are everywhere around us, but you generally won’t know as there’s no national labelling requirement for them anywhere in the world.
  • They’ve been allowed to flourish because of their potential benefits, but there are significant gaps in our knowledge about their potential side effects for health and the environment.

Nanotechnology is heralded as making products and processes smaller, smarter, cleaner and safer, but could also spell trouble for our health and the environment. We explain what it is, how it’s used, what the concerns are and what you can do.

Please note: this information was current as of June 2007 but is still a useful guide today.

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is a generic term for a wide range of technologies derived from physics, chemistry and biology and used in medicine, consumer goods and other applications. It involves the engineering of materials at atomic or molecular levels — at the nanoscale — measuring up to 100 nanometres (nm) in diameter, to create new materials or materials with substantially different properties.

One nanometre is a billionth of a metre (0.000001 mm); a human hair is about 80,000–100,000 nanometres wide. Without a microscope, we can’t see anything smaller than about 10,000 nm.

Nanomaterials aren't new. They occur naturally in sea spray or volcanic emissions, for example, or incidentally as by-products in diesel emissions or welding fumes. What's new now is that advanced tools are available that allow us to manipulate matter at the nanoscale, so we can expand and develop nanotechnologies in many different fields. 

How nanotechnology is used

Consumer products

The number of products sold worldwide under the nanotechnology banner is growing at an amazing speed. In May 2007, the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars listed 475 entries in its inventory of nanotechnology consumer products, though it’s estimated more than 700 are currently on the market.

Products that use nanotechnology are in our homes already, without most of us realising it. A few examples include:

  • Clothing and household textiles made of wrinkle, stain and odour resistant fabric — like pants that don’t wrinkle, shirts that don’t stain, socks that fight fungal disease and sheets that keep you cool and comfy.
  • Cosmetics and toiletries with nano-oxides of iron, aluminium, zirconium, silicon and manganese, and sunscreens with nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide for more transparent UV protection.
  • Personal care items with nanosilver, such as teeth cleaners, toothpaste, condoms, wound dressings, dummies and other baby products. (Friends of the Earth Australia thinks several hundred cosmetics and personal care products with nanoparticles are currently on the market. It lists on its website 116 that contain nanoparticles, based on information in the public domain.)
  • Sturdy and long-lasting coatings for buildings or furniture, and very thin coatings for self-cleaning surfaces.
  • Germ-fighting whitegoods containing nanosilver claimed to keep your things fresher: your clothes in the wash, cups and plates in the dishwasher and food where it’s stored, in the fridge and in plastic containers.
  • Smart foods and packaging including nutrient enriched and functional foods, nutrition supplements, and packaging infused with antibacterial nanosilver or sensors.

Outside the home

  • In non-domestic situations, nanotechnology is being applied in the fields of environmental protection (for water and air purification, pollution detection and solar energy production) or in medicine.
  • It has already led to the development of more effective drug delivery systems, and it’s hoped to lead to breakthroughs in cancer detection, diagnosis and treatment as well as enhanced tissue engineering procedures for nerve regeneration or replacement of body parts.

Environmental and health concerns

While it’s generally accepted that the characteristics of matter can be changed significantly at the nanoscale, there are concerns that the very properties that make nanomaterials so attractive — their small size and relatively larger surface area, which can make them more reactive — could also hold unforeseen health or environmental hazards.

Scientific studies suggest that some nanoparticles may cause harm to people and the environment, even if the material in bulk form is non-toxic.

Nanoparticles in consumer products may be present in clusters larger than 100 nm in size, in which case any toxic effects linked to their small size are no longer relevant. Even if they’re present in fixed form — enmeshed in a solid matrix or liquid suspension — there’s concern about how they behave in the environment during their disposal, destruction or recycling, when they may leach out of landfills, or how they affect workers during their manufacture.

Effects on human health

Free nanoparticles — those that aren’t embedded in a substance but which make up the substance themselves, like in some cosmetics — are of particular concern to human health, as they have the potential to enter the human body through the lungs, skin or intestinal tract.

  • Once in the bloodstream, nanoparticles may be absorbed by organs and tissues. There’s simply not enough data available on human exposure to nanoparticles to know for how long they’ll remain there, how much damage they may cause and at what dose.
  • The greatest risks may stem from inhalation of nanoparticles, as they can be deposited deep in the lungs where they may lead to lung disease and cancer.
  • Whether and in what circumstances they can enter our bloodstream via the gastro-intestinal tract, or through the skin, is still unknown. However, it appears more likely that nanoparticles could penetrate broken skin that’s damaged by the sun, eczma, acne or wounds.
Ecological risks

Nanoparticles could also have a significant ecological impact because of bioaccumulation — the increase in concentration of a pollutant from the environment to an organism through a food chain — especially if the nanoparticles absorb smaller pollutants such as pesticides, or if they persist in the environment because they’re too small to detect.

There may also be other problems. For example, silver is a powerful bactericide, so there’s concern that nanosilver particles could affect beneficial bacteria in the soil and water that are needed, for example, to help break down organic matter and keep waterways clean, or that they could lead to increased resistance to nanosilver among harmful bacteria.


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02.Call for regulation


Information wanted

Consumer surveys in Europe and Australia have found that people generally know very little about nanotechnology. While we tend to appreciate its potential in medicine, we’re less willing to buy nanotechnology products, especially if we’re not informed we’re doing so. Our biggest fears are of the unknown, as the effects of free nanoparticles in our bodies and the environment aren’t yet fully known and understood.

Governments and regulators have to take these concerns seriously and work together with industry to ensure the health and safety of people and the environment. We want to know what’s happening in the marketplace — not just that nanotechnology can improve our lives, make products cheaper and change the world for the better but that any risks are kept to a minimum. In short, we need a rigorous testing regimen and regulatory controls.

What you can do

If you’re concerned about the lack of transparency and regulatory control, write to manufacturers asking them to ensure their products containing nanoparticles are safe and clearly labelled. And write to your local MP and the Hon. Ian Macfarlane, MP, Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, asking them to:

  • Make labelling mandatory for all products containing nanoparticles.
  • Put research into the risk factors of nanotechnologies before product research.
  • To engage the public in the debate.

Calls for regulation

Calls for some sort of regulation of nanotechnology industries are mounting around the world.

  • One of the foremost scientific associations, the UK’s Royal Society, and the Royal Academy of Engineering already warned as far back as 2004 that nanoparticles should be treated as new chemicals and their release into the environment be avoided as far as possible until more is known about how they behave in the air, water and soil. It also recommended that ingredients in consumer products undergo a full safety assessment before they’re permitted for use in products, and that manufacturers publish their methodologies publicly and identify the fact that manufactured nanoparticles have been added.
  • The United States Environment Protection Agency decided late last year that silver ion-generating washing machines must be registered as a pesticide, because the silver released into the wash is regarded as a pesticide. This means the onus is on manufacturers to prove their products won’t harm the environment.
  • On the home front, Friends of the Earth (FoE) has been working on nanotechnology since 2005 in response to the rapid development of the nanotechnology industry with little or no critical debate or regulation. It’s calling for a moratorium on the research, development and production of synthetic nanoproducts while regulations are developed to protect the health and safety of workers, the public and the environment.
  • The NSW Greens have joined FoE in their call for an immediate moratorium on nanotechnology products. And some academics are urging governments to strengthen our regulatory systems to ensure nanomaterials are evaluated for their safety and environmental impacts before they’re released into the environment.

Public debate needed

So far there’s been little public debate on the topic. The National Nanotechnology Strategy Taskforce released an options paper almost a year ago. It said there’s an immediate need to fund and co-ordinate research into the risks arising from health, safety and environmental issues relating to nanotechnologies. It recommended, among other things, that a dedicated federal office be established, a regulatory framework investigated and public discussion initiated urgently.

While the Industry Minister announced a $21.5 million national nanotechnology strategy in his recent industry statement, few details had been made public at the time of our research. We hope it’ll give due emphasis to assessing the impacts, addressing regulation and generating public discussion.