What's out of sight is on their minds

Microscope in Indian nanotechnology lab

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Tess Vigeland: By the time I'm finished saying the word "nanotechnology," your hair will have grown about 10 nanometers.

These nanomaterials may be small, but their use in products and industry just gets bigger. But no one's really keeping tabs on whether they'll end up a giant health or environmental risk.

One green group is joining with a chemical company to lay down some nanoguidelines — presumably in teeny, tiny print — to evaluate this growing sector. Janet Babin reports from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Pubic Radio.


Janet Babin: Maybe you've never heard of a nanoparticle and doubt you've ever been near one. But if you've brushed on face powder, rubbed on sunscreen or swung a golf club, you've probably benefited from nano.

Because they're so tiny, they can do things other materials can't — like make creams easier to blend into skin, or clubs stronger. But that's also the reason they can be dangerous. Some studies suggest nanoparticles could damage lung and brain tissue.

Andrew Maynard is with the Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies:

Andrew Maynard: In some cases, it appears that they can actually enter cells or enter parts of the body or even parts of the environment that larger particles can't do.

So what happens if that nano silver-particle were to escape into the local stream?

Regulation of that scenario is spotty at best. Most industries simply self-regulate. Now, Environmental Defense and DuPont have issued guidelines. First, they recommend companies describe how they'll use the material.

Scott Walsh is with Environmental Defense:

Scott Walsh: Next step, you actually profile the entire lifecycle of the material. So how it's developed as a material, how it's incorporated into a product, how that product is used and what happens to that product after it's used.

But to some activists, having DuPont in the mix is like putting the coyote in charge of the house cat.

Environmental Attorney George Kimbrell:

George Kimbrell: They don't have the best history as far as environmental and human health impacts go.

Kimbrell says it's federal agencies entrusted with protecting human and environmental health that should develop nanoguidelines.

I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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