Come with me now to the world of science and journey with me into the realm of the really, really small, and the really really weird.
I'm talking nano-particles and nanobots.
I am not a luddite, but that doesn't mean that even where some new technology created in the world of science which shows great promise for lots of things, I believe we should just race ahead and set it loose on ourselves and our world.
Lord knows, we've done that enough times to learn from our mistakes, but then we don't.
Nanotechnology is not like brand new. It may already be in your sock drawer and who knows where else. The problem is we don't really regulate such things and we don't really know what the dangers out there are...when, for example, you are dealing with some things which just sail past the blood brain barrier...when, for example, you are dealing with some things that can linger in the environment for who knows how long, and maybe could turn all life forms to a gray goo mess.
Meanwhile nano-particles aren't just in your sock drawer they are in your food.
And it isn't like we haven't know of the dangerous part of this rush to the future for a while. As the International Institute of Concern for Public Health pointed out almost two years ago:
Research done by Prof. Richard Handy at the University of Plymouth demonstrated that titanium nanoparticles in the fish brain have some parallels to the effects of mercury in the brain. Prof. Handy also said that these nanoparticles might not enter and leave the body but could, instead, build up inside of you.
According to a study published in the journalNanotoxicology, carbon nanoparticles can smash the cellular barriers in the parts of the kidneys that produce urine. This lets toxins that are supposed to be flushed out of the body get into the bloodstream while essential nutrients could be eliminated from the body.
A 2005 Environmental Science and Technology study showed that zinc oxide nanoparticles in lab tests were toxic to human lung cells even at low concentrations.
Other studies have shown that 15 nanometer-size particles killed liver and brain cells from rats.
Nanotechnology should not be confused with molecular nanotechnology (MNT) a still theoretical science dedicated to manufacturing products from the atom up through use of nanoscale machines. MNT is spearheaded by physicist Dr. Eric Drexler, who coined the term, "nanotechnology" and later, "molecular nanotechnology."
The CDC defines nanotechnology as:
... the manipulation of matter on a near-atomic scale to produce new structures, materials and devices. This technology promises scientific advancement for many sectors such as medicine, consumer products, energy, materials and manufacturing. Nanotechnology is somewhat loosely defined, although in general terms it covers engineered structures, devices, and systems that have a length scale between 1 and 100 nanometers. At this size, materials begin to exhibit unique properties that affect physical, chemical, and biological behavior. Researching, developing, and utilizing these properties is at the heart of new technology.
The CDC also writes:
As with any new technology, the earliest and most extensive exposure to hazards is most likely to occur in the workplace. Workers within nanotechnology-related industries have the potential to be exposed to uniquely engineered materials with novel sizes, shapes, and physical and chemical properties. Occupational health risks associated with manufacturing and using nanomaterials are not yet clearly understood. Minimal information is currently available on dominant exposure routes, potential exposure levels, and material toxicity of nanomaterials.
Studies have indicated that low solubility nanoparticles are more toxic than larger particles on a mass for mass basis. There are strong indications that particle surface area and surface chemistry are responsible for observed responses in cell cultures and animals. There are also indications that nanoparticles can penetrate through the skin or move from the respiratory system to other organs. Research is continuing to understand how these unique properties may lead to specific health effects.
And yet while "research is continuing" the little buggers are already out there in your world, in your grocery store, and, again, in your body quite likely. I would add that your immune system, your blood vessels, your organs, etc. haven't a clue what these things are and whether to welcome them, fight them, ignore them, or surrender to them.
I don't have any trouble with continuing the research into the field of nanotechnology. I just think it wouldn't hurt to both let us all know what is going on, and it wouldn't hurt to be cautious, very cautious.
Meanwhile, I bet your local police had no idea that titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles are in the white powdered sugar that coats Dunkin’ Donuts Powdered Cake Donuts and Hostess Donettes.
The following is from Orion Magazine.
Inside nanotechnology’s little universe of big unknowns
AS WITH MANY THINGS that are invisible and difficult to understand—think subatomic particles such as the Higgs boson, muons, gluons, or quarks—any discussion of nanoparticles quickly shifts into the realm of metaphor and analogy. People working in nanoscience seem to try to outdo each other with folksy explanations: Looking for a nanoparticle is like looking for a needle in the Grand Canyon when the canyon is filled with straw. If a nanoparticle were the size of a football, an actual football would be the size of New Zealand. A million nanoparticles could squeeze onto the period at the end of this sentence.
AT FIRST some in the scientific community didn’t think that the unknown environmental effects of nanotechnology merited CEINT’s research. “The common view was that it was premature,” says CEINT’s director, Mark Wiesner. “My point was that that’s the whole point. But looking at risk is never as sexy as looking at the applications, so it took some time to convince my colleagues.”
READING THROUGH DESCRIPTIONS of nanoparticle applications can make a person almost giddy. It all sounds mostly great. And the toxicology maxim “Dose makes the poison” leads many biologists to be skeptical of the dangers nanoparticles might pose. After all, nanoparticles are pretty darn small.
LEE FERGUSON, a chemistry professor who directs the nanoparticle analysis, meets me in the basement of the CEINT building and leads me on a tour of all the hulking, pricey instruments the researchers use. Despite the cutting-edge aura of this machinery, none of it is fully up to the task of locating and analyzing the proverbial nanoneedle.
DOWN THE BASEMENT HALLWAY, postdoc Badireddy motions to me to join him at a computer monitor next to the dark field microscope in his lab. He clicks on a movie he’s made from images he’s captured. It shows silver nanoparticles interacting with bacteria.
Is nanotechnology a panacea or Pandora’s box? Listen to a conversation with Heather Millar.