Nanotechnology, no longer the stuff of science fiction, abounds in electronics, lotions, and even medications we use daily. Nanomaterials are in clothing, sunscreen, paint, window glass, tennis rackets, washing machines, and food storage bags. They permeate toothpaste, dietary supplements, and even breast creams. And researchers are constantly developing new applications of nanotechnology's unique and sometimes amazing properties.
But there is a growing body of evidence that nanomaterials could pollute the air, soil, and water and potentially damage human health. Researchers hope that this will not happen; that this is one technical revolution in which potential negative effects will be dealt with as the technology evolves, and not years later, for preventing problems in preferable to cleaning them up after the fact. However, they worry that research in problems and their prevention will fall behind advances and applications. In 2005, nanotechnology research's budget totaled approximately $1.2 billion. But only about 3 percent of that went to research in environment, health, and safety issues.
In the September issue of IEEE Spectrum, authors Barbara Karn from the EPA and Scott Matthews from Carnegie Mellon University summarize preliminary evidence of health and environmental problems that can be caused by nanotechnology, and urge that researchers increase efforts to assess the risks of nanotechnology.