Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at the unimaginably tiny scale of nanometers (nm). This is the level of molecules and atoms. For example a DNA molecule is about 2 nanometres in width. A red blood cell (invisible to the naked eye) is 8,000 nanometres. The diameter of a human hair (which is something we can imagine) is about 100,000 nanometres in diameter. Somewhere around the scale of 100 nanometres, particles of matter take on brand new quantum effects because they are so small. For example, ultra fine gold particles are a different colour (red or sometimes green) at the nano scale.
These new chemical properties make nanomaterials both unpredictable and potentially useful (and profitable) for chemical companies and manufacturers who would ignore the risks. For example nano-silver particles are an incredibly powerful bactericide that can be added to your hair curler or your socks to kill germs. Unfortunately the scientists don't always know what the side effects might be. If you put your nano-silver socks into the washing machine you are rinsing a powerful but incredibly tiny pesticide into the water supply. Because it is so tiny it is almost impossible to detect. But people who don't know anything about the potential risks might be encouraged to buy socks which seem to stay magically fresh and clean.
Carbon nanotubes are an incredibly strong nano material, now used in everything from tennis rackets to airplane wings. Insurance companies and toxicologists are worried about what will happen when this ultrafine particulate (with similar dimensions to asbestos) begins to break down is the waste chain. The World Economic Forum report on global risk has for six years now singled out nanotechnology as one of three major technological risks facing the world (Global Risks 2011).
In theory, there's big money to be made for companies that invent and control new or cheaper products. As a result, in the UK, public research funding for science is being diverted to support private industry’s research interests in nanotechnology, whilst corporations are claiming patents on publicly-funded research. In doing so they are enclosing the molecular commons, the cornucopia of chemicals in nature, preventing the rest of us from accessing it.
Today the first generation of nanotechnologies are materials altered at the nanolevel (for example nano-thin layers of semiconductor material used in computer chips and mobile phones) or ultra fine particles that have new chemical properties. But in the future designers hope to build tiny machines at the molecular level or even self-assembling molecular devices, (‘nanobots’). They will try harness living organisms (which naturally build protein and the other materials of life at the nano scale) to do engineering for industrial ends.
While some of the future nanotechnology ideas are, as yet, science fiction there are already hundreds of first generation nanotechnology products being brought to market without proper safety research. What safety research that has been done shows that some nano-particles have the potential to pass through the blood/brain barrier or into the placenta of a pregnant woman. There are very few regulations and industrial safety practices in place. The materials are so new that science doesn’t even have effective ways to measure their possible toxic effects. So what can we do?
Support product labelling (especially food!). People have the right to know if there are nanomaterials in their food.
Support trade union demands for safety in the workplace. Don’t make industrial workers unwilling guinea pigs for testing the new nano-chemicals.
ETC Group reports http://www.etcgroup.org/en/issues/nanotechnology
Royal society report http://royalsociety.org/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=4294970333