The release of the federal government’s new “Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) Research Strategy” for nanotechnology could be dismissed as just another obscure scientific paper.
But that would be a big mistake.
Nanotechnology, which is the engineering of products at an atomic scale, isn’t merely some concept out of science fiction that may happen decades from now.
Manufacturers are already quickly including nanotechnology in the products they sell today — and there is a real question of making sure they are safe, both for consumers and for the environment overall.
More than 1,000 nanotechnology-enabled products have been made available to consumers around the world, up from just 212 in 2006, according to one estimate.
Health and fitness items comprise a major part of the nanotech inventory, particularly products based on nanoscale silver—used for its antimicrobial properties. But nanotechnology is all over, from lighter-weight tennis racquets, to cookware.
These products are coming onto the market quickly. But are they safe?
Scientists created stir back in 2008 when they suggested some nanoparticles, for instance, could cause lung cancer similar to the way asbestos does.
The federal goverment has been funding nanotechnology research for more than a decade, and says that its new strategy document is intended “to most efficiently produce research data that can be used to protect public health and the environment, while continuing to fuel innovations and capture the value of those innovations for the benefit of the American people.”
“The EHS Research Strategy provides guidance to all the Federal agencies that have been producing gold-standard scientific data for risk assessment and management, regulatory decision making, product use, research planning, and public outreach,” says Sally Tinkle, environmental, health and safety coordinator for the government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative, which is the federal program which coordinates nanotech research. “This continues a trend in this Administration of increasing support for nanotechnology-related EHS research, as exemplified by new funding in 2011 from the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission and increased funding from both the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The political winds in Washington have begun blowing against regulation of products and businesses, but nanotechnology provides a good example of why regulation to ensure product safety makes sense both for consumers and business.
Experts in the field have long warned that, because nanotechnology remains mysterious and unknown to most people, its future in the marketplace will be determined by public trust.
Consider that a European Union ban on genetically modified food cost American farmers at least $300 million a year in lost sales.
Just one health scare, or environmental disaster, traced back to some aspect of nanotechnology, could well turn sentiment away from anything connected with nanotechnology far into the future.
Therefore, it’s entirely in the interests of business to be fully on-the-level when it comes to nanotechnology in their products, and to support strong consumer protections to ensure that any nanotechnology remains safe and reliable for years to come.