If you follow my blogs and books, you may know that I am fascinated by nanotechnology and at the same time astounded the general public almost completely ignores the promise and peril of these nearly invisible molecules. The lack of attention from consumers may be because they think it is science fiction or it is a technology that even the scientists and regulators don’t fully understand.

In the Seventh Edition of my Consumers’ Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients which will be published in October 2009 by Crown/Three Rivers Press, I write:

“What is nanotechnology and why is it important to cosmetic manufacturers despite the caution of scientists, government agencies and consumers? Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture things usually between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter; a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide. Some of the applications of the tiny substances are from practical to fantastic to potentially dangerous. Although the nanotechnology industry is just starting out, it is already booming. It is projected to capture 14% of the US $2.6 trillion global manufacturing market… In contrast, it made up less than 0.1% just three years ago. The nanoparticle size positively affects dispersibility, skin feel and transparency on the skin.
     Some critics of nanotechnology say that nanoparticles could easily be inhaled absorbed through the skin or build up in the environment. Others have likened the materials to asbestos, which is now known to cause lung cancer and other diseases. When nanoparticles in cosmetics penetrate the skin and move around the body what happens to them? No one knows because at this writing, they are untraceable.
     A recent report based on research from US scientists, for example, shows that nanoparticles used in certain sun cream formulations can affect mice brain cells by upsetting the chemical balance and potentially causing neurological damage. The Study, carried out by Bellina Veronesi of the US Environmental Protection Agency and published on the website, looked at the affects of nano-sized Titania, now commonly used in sun cream formulations and often labeled titanium oxide…Although Veronesi stressed that the research does not necessarily imply that the Titania grains are harmful to the human body and other experts have aired caution over the interpretation of the findings, it does add to a growing body of research that suggests potential risks might exists when certain compounds are reduced to nano size.”
        “Dr. Andrew Maynard, science advisor to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, is an internationally recognized expert on airborne particles. According to Maynard, aerosol sprays can produce breathable particles a few micrometers in size that can remain airborne for long periods of time and can reach the sensitive deep lung if inhaled. Once deposited, there is the possibility of chemicals or nanoparticles (if present) in the droplets causing damage.
    “David Rejeski, Director, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center says “We are about to be inundated with hundreds, if not thousands, of new products but governments are not ready. Industry and trade groups are not prepared. A research strategy for addressing possible human health or environmental risks is not in place, and the public is not informed.”
    The Consumers Union wrote to the FDA asking that they require a full safety assessment on the use of nanoparticles in cosmetics, sunscreens and sunblocks, before a product is allowed to market. In addition, the group has called for the labeling of nanoparticles in products so that consumers can make an informed choice. “

In the Seventh Edition of my Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives which was published by Crown/Three Rivers in April 2009, I wrote, in part, of nanotechnology and food:

New developments, however, are never without warning. Many scientists and consumers are wary of nanotech food. For example, certain nanoparticles possess the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and can serve as carriers for other molecules. Information on the bioaccumulation and potential toxic effects of inhalation and/or ingestion of free engineered nanoparticles and their long-term implications for public health is needed. Nanoscale materials may also present new challenges in relation to exposure assessment, including measurement of nanoparticles in the body and in complex food composition.
    “Approval systems for food additives have not, in the past, taken much heed of the particle size of the additive. For nanoparticles, this is obviously an important aspect since nanoparticles may be handled differently in the body than their previously approved, macro counterparts. It is likely that the approach will vary from country to country. Most scientific committees that have reviewed the initial applications of nanotechnology conclude that while consumers are likely to benefit from this technology, new data and new measurement approaches may be needed to ensure that the safety of products using nanotechnology are properly assessed. Food industry experts predict that nanotechnology will have a significant impact on food products in a variety of ways both directly and indirectly. Most foodstuffs contain natural nanoscale particles. Nanotechnology-based products are increasingly being used to produce antimicrobial food contact materials commercially available as packaging or as coatings. Current research on such ‘smart’ surfaces is aimed at the development of surfaces that can detect bacterial contamination and react against bacterial growth.
Nanoscale materials may also present new challenges in relation to exposure assessment, including measurement of nanoparticles in the body and in complex food composition.”
     Cosmetics and food aren’t the only promise and perils linked to nanotechnology. Demand for nanotechnology medical products will grow by more than 17 percent annually to reach $53 billion in 2011, according to a recent report from The Freedonia Group. By 2016, new products such as nanodiagnostics, nanotech-based medical supplies and nanomedicines will drive demand to more than $110 billion, the report added.
    The advocates of nanohealthcare say the technology will enhance the quality and performance of diagnostic products. For example, nanosized antibodies labels and DNA probes will improve the speed, accuracy, capabilities and cost effectiveness of in laboratory diagnostic testing. Freedonia anticipated these performance advantages and the broadening range of nanodiagnostics will increase demand for these products
    The group predicted that the long-term impact of nanotechnology will include new medical supply and device coatings, as well as new medical implants. Fredonia Group predicted the greatest short-term healthcare advances due to nanotechnology will be in therapies and diagnostics for cancer and central nervous system disorders, The organization also predicted that many other major diseases, as well as injuries, will eventually be treated and detected with nanotechnology products.
     I will be writing more about how advances in nanotechnology will affect electronics and computing, medicine, cosmetics, foods, the military, energy. By 2020, $1 trillion worth of products could be nano-engineered in some way. They may be invaluable but who knows? There is no way, as yet, to find out what happens to these tiny particles in our bodies.