SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Nanotechnology has been hailed as the science of the future, with micro-particles already powering innovations that remove lines from faces, strengthen beer bottles and clean clothing without water.
Yet early studies also indicate some of these particles, enabled by the latest in engineering science, can cause cancer.
“We should recognize that there will be mistakes, and there will be hazards,” said Professor Harry Kroto, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of a nanoparticle called the Buckminsterfullerene. “On the other had, there’s a possibility that the value of nanotechnology will be overwhelming. For me, it is the science of the 21st century.”
Nanotechnology is the science of creating and working with materials about one nanometer wide, or one-billionth of a meter. A human hair, by contrast, is about 80,000 nanometers across.
Scientists say working with these particles holds the promise of building miniature machines atom by atom, just as every living thing begins with one cell.
“The big deal here is that we’re domesticating atoms. We’re trying to make the basic building blocks of our world do our bidding,” said Patrick Lin, director of the Nanoethics Group at California Polytechnic State University.
Some scientists are already using nanotechnology to add small particles of silver, long-known as an antibacterial, to razors, food-storage containers, and “anti-fungal” socks.
Others are exploiting unusual properties that appear at the nano-scale. In the laboratory, for example, normal carbon atoms can be fixed into tube-like shapes, called nanotubes, which are 100 times stronger than steel and only one-sixth its weight. Such tampering can bring new lighter power to a golf club.
The problem is that these particles may be harmful to the human body, and scientists say it will be years before they fully understand their effects. Nanoparticles are small enough to slip unnoticed through a cell membrane but large enough to carry foreign material between strands of DNA.
There are no long-term health studies on the issue, but researchers have seen brain cancer develop in fish that ingest a small number of carbon nanoparticles. Rats that inhale carbon nanotubes have lung problems similar to those caused by asbestos.
“There’s no reason to think that all of these things are going to be harmful,” said John Balbus, chief health scientist at Environmental Defense, a public policy group. “But we should be prudent because of their ability to get into the body and access parts of it that normal chemicals don’t.”
Federal funding for nanotechnology research has tripled since 2001, but environmental groups complain that regulations have not kept pace.
“We’re calling on government to invest more money in health, safety, and environmental research so that we can make sure these products are safe,” said Ian Illuminato, health and environment campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
The Food and Drug Administration announced in July that drugs, cosmetics, or other products manufactured with nanotechnology do not require special regulations or labeling because it said there was no scientific evidence they pose any major safety risks.
Some companies are taking their own steps however.
This year, materials company DuPont agreed to a system — developed with Environmental Defense — for evaluating whether to proceed with projects involving nanoparticles.
Terry Medley, the DuPont lead on the project, described the step as “not only common sense but also good business.”
Editing by Adam Tanner and Eric Beech