The World of Silver Spoons and Golden Specks and All that Disinfects
Did you know that a Hong Kong company makes "Antibacterial Table Ware" that can "prevent people from the following diseases: duodenitis caused by spirillums, virosis hepatitis, dysentery caused by salmonella and food poisoning caused by golden staphylococcus"? Such wishful thinking is common in the product claims featured at the Project For Emerging Nanotechnologies' inventory of available nanotechnologies. (PEN is a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts. "Antibacterial Table Ware's" antimicrobial power stems from the "nano silver coating" but the technology has some fine print limitations. During holiday dinner when you're sitting at the table laden with such utensils you would need to urge your mom to "please dawdle", as she ladles the gravy and potatoes onto your plate, so as to give the "Antimicrobial Table Ware" enough time to "kill the attached bacteria and microbial [sic] in ten minutes". (emphasis mine)
The company also makes hairdressing tools that "protect people" from diseases they would (never but for horrendous circumstances) pick up at the beauty parlor, "hairdressing-related infections such as trachoma, conjunctivitis, virosis hepatitis, dermatitis and AIDS." Nanotechnology claims by companies in the US tend to be slightly more responsible, but the precociously labeled products available as imports litter the internet, while regulation and oversight lags behind prolific headfirst investment in the new technologies.
In real life, nanotechnology is not as fantastical as some marketing boasts, but is very impressive. Products incorporate elements that are 1-100 nanometers in length -- a nano being a billionth of a meter, and scientists can change the structure of an element in the lab to give it unique properties. So although Carbon nanotubules can be found in nature, in soot for example, one of the most common carbon nanotubules is produced when scientists vaporize carbon between two carbon electrodes. When you think of carbon you'd probably consider the soft form of it -- graphite, or the very hard form -- diamond; however, from carbon nanotubules, scientists now construct materials that are both very light and incredibly strong -- perhaps a hundred times stronger than steel. Carbon nanontubules are used to make electronic brushes used in engines and for future applications in optics, electronics and material science.
Silver is a proven anti-microbial -- the FDA recently approved silver coated breathing tubes used in ventilators, that may help reduce the risk of pneumonia in hospital settings. Researchers use nanotechnology for drug development and are advancing sophisticated technology to accomplish feats such as delivering drugs to a specific location in the body or building scaffolding for the regeneration of bone, nerves and other body parts. Nanotechnology offers promising advances for almost every field, medicine is just one example. However before much of this promising research yields viable products, nanotechnology will also be relentlessly hyped for selling more mundane items with dubious benefits such as "antimicrobial" socks and refrigerators.
Nanotechnology products tout anti-bacterial, anti-reflective or stain resistance properties, many of which are not yet proven. Just as flatware marketing preposterously proposes to protect you from infections like Hepatitis A, hundreds of other products collectively promise to erect a magical nanotechnology barrier, a personal missile shield between you and the millions of germs that threaten you.
When you're done sipping your silver nanoparticle preserved soup from your special silver spoon you might want to brush your teeth with "cutting edge toothpaste which innovative nanotechnology is applied", made from "pure nano-sized gold that is highly effective in disinfecting the bacteria in your mouth". And if that company went out of business (likely), you can find some Korean made silver nanotechnology toothpaste that will serve the purpose. The PEN inventory lists hundreds of products with these sorts of thrilling if unsettling properties.
More concerning than blatant labeling for the benefits of nanotechnology however, is the empty labeling from companies which choose not to advertise their nanotechnology because of federal regulations. For instance, the "FresherLonger Miracle Food Storage" containers used to be marketed as "infused with silver nanoparticles that will keep soups, sauces, meats and vegetables "fresher three or even four times longer". Now the same product doesn't mention the silver nanotechnology, only the "airtight silicone-gasket locking system" which helps "retard spoilage". The change in product literature was made to avoid the EPA's regulation of products claiming to be pesticides -- antimicrobials are considered by the EPA to be pesticides.
$50 billion dollars worth of goods incorporating nanotechnology were sold last year, and nanotechnology is entering the consumer marketplace at the rate of 3-4 products a week according to the Project on Emerging Technologies (PEN). There are over 600 consumer products currently on the market, everything from utensils to washing machines to teddy bears, camera lenses, make-up, hearing aids, suntan lotion,clothing, and waterless car washes.
Beyond the veracity of labeling, is consuming particles that can't even be seen under a microscope floating around in your body safe? One skin care product called "DNA Skin Optimizer" notes that "Nano technology was chosen because it makes it possible to place the sensitive ingredients in the form of tiny crystals directly into the cell nucleus" -- which, were it true, is certainly not a comforting prospect. Scientists don't know if how nanoparticles accumulate in the body and what interactions and effects they might have, since there are very few studies on the safety of these products.
Last week, however, Nature Nanotechnology published a pilot study suggesting that the safety of carbon nanotubes warrants further investigation. (Poland et al. "Carbon nanotubes introduced into the abdominal cavity of mice show asbestos-like pathogenicity in a pilot study"; doi:10.1038/nnano.2008.111) The researchers subjected the meseothelial lining of the body cavity of mice to carbon nanotubules of varying lengths. Like asbestos, the long fiber carbon nanotubules created an inflammatory response in the mesothelium and scarring, while shorter fibers did not, which indicates (at least) that people who work with carbon nanotubules in manufacturing might be at risk for the same types of problems seen with asbestos exposure.
The environmental risks of this new technology explosion are also unknown but disconcerting. Last month researchers from Arizona State University did some experiments on silver ion containing socks that were marketed for their ability to cut down on foot odor. The researchers washed several brands of socks, and the silver washed out of the socks at various rates. The study motivated concern that the inevitable increase and indiscriminate use of nanotechnology would cast silver into streams and run-off causing environmental damage and endangering the health of species that live in and depend on streams and rivers. Products like Samsung's EPA approved washing machine releases silver ions into every load of wash, a gimmick Samsung calls: "Silver Wash that sterilizes your clothes".
Nanotechnology has broad funding support from Congress and research in this area is flourishing. However scientists and some consumer groups are worried that there are too many unknowns about nanotechnology's safety and that more research should be aimed at investigating the potential hazards. Scientists from industry, environmental groups and academia acknowledge that not only are we producing products with unknown risks without regulation, but that the lack of regulation may cause consumers to become skittish about nanotechnology.
Earlier this month a group of consumer groups recently petitioned the EPA to take a stronger stance on nanotechnology, specifically on products that market silver as a pesticide (antimicrobial). Congress is currently considering legislation on nanotechnology but legislators pared funding for studies on the health and environmental risks of the technology.