Nanotechnology safety: Back under the microscope

Related tags Nanotechnology

The debate on nanotechnology continues to rage. For every expert
claiming that the nanotechnology application they have developed is
safe, there is one claiming that caution and further research have
to be undertaken. So who is right?

Scientists developing nanotechnology-based products will, naturally, tell us that the products they have developed are safe for consumers to use.

Many skin care products, particularly those in the anti-aging arena, now rely on nanotechnology as a means of increasing the efficacy of formulations, with companies claiming that this has provided them with a new weapon in the fight against aging.

Although nanotechnology is used in a wide range of consumer products - including paints, clothing and packaging - when it comes to cosmetics the fact that such products come into such close contact with the body suggests that an even greater level of research is necessary to ensure safety.

Such safety claims are often backed up by citing the fact that nano particles have existed in countless compounds since the beginning of time, indicating that our exposure to man-made nano particles is nothing out of the ordinary.

But there is another opinion on the matter that is quite different, believing the more comprehensive research needs to be undertaken to fully determine risk-factors.

Scientists have indicating misgivings over potential chemical instability of nano manipulated particles, particularly when combined with other compounds, as is the case with cosmetic formulations.

Likewise, questions have been raised over how nano-based cosmetic formulations might behave once they are applied to the skin in, for example, an anti-aging formula. Due to their size, could such particles penetrate the skin's inner layer? Could this then lead to the particles entering the bloodstream? If so what might the implications be?

All of these questions and many more need to be answered through comprehensive scientific risk research, research that many scientists believe still needs more attention.

Only this week a report from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, concluded that greater resources and attention is needed to ensure the safety of nanotechnology as this aspect only represents a tiny fraction of the current total budgets for development.

With The Nanotech Report: 4th Edition, by Lux Research, indicating that the market for nanotechnology manufactured goods set to be worth $2.6 trillion by the year 2015, all the indications are that this is an area that is set to boom in the coming years.

This market growth means that the area of safety cannot be ignored, and it is right now, while the technology is still in its infancy, that the real research and development work into its safety should be carried out.

Already the Woodrow Wilson Center in the US has a database consisting of over 300 manufacturer-identified nanotechnology-based consumer products, a significant percentage of which are cosmetic products.

Some scientists believe that under current conditions determining the true safety of such products is a lottery for consumers.

Author of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies report, Andrew Maynard, beleives that radical action has to take place in order to take the uncertainty out of the equation.

In his report he states that the US government needs to spend a minimum of $100m over the next two year in targeted research into nanotechnology in order to fill-in the gaps in occupational safety for knowledge and to reinforce it with a strong science-based foundation.

For the time-being, Maynard is suggesting the industry develops a 'control banding' that determines nanotechnology workplace risk, as a kind of compromise between inaction and banning all nanomaterials.

Undoubtedly Maynard's suggestion will make many in the industry feel uncomfortable, but while there is any doubt hanging over nano technology, one thing is certain - safety will continue to be placed under the microscope.

Simon Pitman is the editor of, if you would like to comment on this article, please contact Simon Pitman​.

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