Nanotechnology—engineering extremely small particles at the molecular level to create materials with new behaviors and chemical properties— is a powerful new scientific pursuit, one with the potential to produce the next electricity or combustion engine—the next thing to change everything. Unfortunately, the enormous potential of nanotechnology to quell the world’s problems may be offset by its potential harm. The very young field of nanotoxicity has already linked some nanoparticles to:
- Damage to DNA
- Disruption of cellular function and production of reactive oxygen species
- Asbestos-like pathogencity
- Neurologic problems (such as seizures)
- Organ damage, including significant lesions on the liver and kidneys
- Destruction of beneficial bacteria in wastewater treatment systems
- Stunted root growth in corn, soybeans, carrots, cucumber and cabbage
- Gill damage, respiratory problems and oxidative stress in fish
Even though these potential threats are widely acknowledged, regulations lag far behind the development and commercialization of products containing nanotechnologies.
The legacy of unregulated chemical and technological commercialization is, in some regards, one of man-made disasters. The track record of asbestos, DDT, PCBs and radiation—substances that were heralded as the technological breakthroughs that would change everything—should serve as a warning that we cannot continue to neglect the potential hazards associated with nanotechnology simply because it is the next big thing.