The Brave New World of Nanotechnology
Moffitt, Ph.D., C. Michael
(Western Technologies Inc., Phoenix, AZ)
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Nanotechnology promises to be the next great technology wave — transforming science, industry, and society in a way unseen since the Industrial Revolution. It has already spawned innovations at the nexus of biology, physics, and chemistry. The global market for nanotech-related products is estimated by the National Science Foundation at $1 trillion within 10 years. Nanoscale materials such as carbon nanotubes and titanium dioxide are being used in the microelectronics, medical, materials, and cosmetics industries. At first glance it would appear that nanotechnology could help create benign, lightweight, and energy-efficient replacements for materials that are now used in manufacturing, many of which are toxic. Furthermore, there are pollution control application and clean-energy production opportunities created by the new nanomaterials. However, there is a huge question mark looming over these rapidly developing technologies and products. We have little knowledge to predict how the new substances, with their unique physical and chemical properties, will affect the world’s environment or the health of consumers and workers. Yet, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 2 million workers are already being exposed to nanoparticles on a regular basis. To keep pace, we must rapidly develop research programs to investigate the effects of nanomaterials on biological systems and disseminate this information to professionals and the general public. Although the topic is often sensationalized by the media, there is a firm scientific basis for the emerging concerns, and preliminary toxicity and worker safety studies are being conducted by industry, government, and academia. NIOSH, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, and the UK’s Royal Society are taking lead roles in the assessment and discussions are underway regarding international regulatory options.