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Nanoparticles: Friend or Foe?

Mon, 09/27/2010 - 5:45am

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Eveline van der Aa Scientific Contributor

Whether you’re a researcher or not, there is no doubt the word “nano” has entered your vocabulary more times in the past year than ever before. Used in everything from sunscreens to golf drivers, nanotechnology has exploded on both scientific and consumer radars.

Nanoparticles, molecules in the 10-9 m diameter range, emerged in the scientific world as the tool promising to be able to change technology as we know it. Due to the small size and large surface area, nanoparticles exhibit unique physical and chemical properties that have generated great interest from researchers specializing in a wide range of disciplines.

Development of products containing these molecules has grown exponentially in the last few years. Nanoparticles now appear in many of the everyday items we see on shelves, including sensitive products like food, lotions, and childrens’ toys.

There are lessons to be learned from breakthrough technologies of the past; think asbestos. Closely linked to nanotechnology, the emerging field of nanotoxicity shows disturbing evidence concerning possible risks involved with the use of nanoparticles.

Such risks include damage to DNA, disruption of cellular function, production of oxygen-reactive species, and neurologic disorders. The same properties that make nanoparticles desirable for scientific research are what largely contribute to the adverse effects observed relating to public health and safety.

The juggling act then begins between the drive to be on the cutting edge of technology and the need to protect the environment and mankind from compounds that could cause disastrous effects if not carefully contained.

The question becomes, where do we draw the line between progress and safety?

I believe that innovative research that utilizes nanoparticles does hold the key to unlocking so many doors that have prevented us from achieving some of our goals in technology. That being said, I also strongly believe that regulations are established to protect citizens from the dangers that inherently exist in scientific advancement. I feel that the best solution for handling nanoparticles is to allow research to progress in many fields such as electronics and to curb the use of nanoparticles in consumer products until the risk of human and environmental exposure has been better assessed.

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