Tuesday, January 23, 2007

[Letters Never Printed] On nanotechnology:

My dad was an avid writer of letters to the editor rife with $10 words. Of course, he got published-- often. I, on the other hand, am a many time reject. In honor of my dad and as part of a series I'm calling "Letters Never Printed," I'm posting letters to the editor that should see the light of day since I bothered to open my dictionary...

The links to the Brown Alumni Monthly and the Boston Globe articles are below. (The Globe article was actually entitled, "What do Pants and the Space Shuttle Have in Common?") There's also a link to The Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies which offers a list of products that contain nanomaterials.

As I read "Mass.'s Nanotech Rivals are on the Move" in Monday's Business section, an article that touts the positive aspects of nanomaterials while it discusses their potential for improving Massachusetts' economy, I kept waiting for Hiawatha Bray to get to their possible negatives. Nanomaterials are completely new and while they have many advantageous properties, much remains unknown. According to "The New Atomic Scientists" by Emily Gold Boutilier in the Brown Alumni Magazine (September/October 2006), what is known is that at least some of these materials bear a resemblance to asbestos-- "they are the right size to be inhaled, they are unlikely to be broken down by the body and their needle-like shape could damage tissue." Carbon nanotubes have even been found to "cause lung irritation and granulomas in animals." Scientists at Brown University have made researching the risks an integral part of their work with nanomaterials. So serious are their concerns that they will only work with these materials using rules for chemical hygiene and hoods or respirators. Some of these same materials may be in your golf clubs, your chinos, your sunscreen, face powder, paint, air sanitizer-- nearly 300 consumer products that are already being sold. I am guessing consumers are not wearing respirators while spraying air sanitizer!

I am disappointed that the Globe neglected this important part of the story. As usual, the money that can be made from a new product is taking precedence over human health. No matter what the potential revenues for universities, industry and the state, I believe we need to exercise extreme caution in the use of nanomaterials. Until the government does more to protect consumers from the possible risks of nanomaterials, I hope readers will access www.nanotechproject.org (where the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies has posted a list of products containing nanomaterials) and protect themselves.

Source: "What do pants and the space shuttle have in common?" Hiawatha Bray, The Boston Globe, 11/13/2006

Brown Alumni Monthly: "The New Atomic Scientists" Sept./Oct. 2006

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