Forget about lead-tainted mascara or mercury in the salmon filet. The new form of product pollution people are worrying about is nanotechnology—the use of materials measured in billionths of a meter—and how coming into contact with it might damage your health. Fueling the nano-scare is negative press, including a report by the Environmental Working Group that concluded hundreds of consumer products contain poorly-studied nanoscale materials and a landmark study published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology that suggests some forms of carbon nanotubes could be as harmful as asbestos, which causes lung cancer if inhaled in sufficient quantities.

Though the Nature study points out risks in the fledging nanotech industry, co-author Andrew Maynard says results like the one in his study are good news, if only because they show that carbon nanotubes can be made safe through more research and better regulations. “There’s already a debate occurring about the potential safety issues of nanotech and how to get around them,” says Maynard. "That's a good thing because it's something that hasn't always happened with previous technologies.”

The government and consumer groups are already considering strengthening safety standards, while research into the effects of the young industry has just begun. Maynard stresses that consumers should be cautious, rather than overly concerned, when using products made with nanomaterials. “This is very clearly a technology that can be used for tremendous good,” he says. “People just need to be smart enough to ask the right questions about how they can use it safely.”

Those questions include determining whether the benefits of using a nanotech product outweigh the possible risks and if the product manufacturer offers more information to help make the decision. Maynard also emphasizes that nanotechnology comes in many different forms, and that before people start wearing masks and swearing off consumer products forever, they should know that each one has a different impact on human health and the environment.

“Comparing a nano chip in the latest iPod to nanoparticles in sunscreens is like comparing chocolate to cheese,” says Maynard. “[When determining risk] you have to be a little bit more precise about the type of nanotechnology you’re talking about.”

In general, consumers shouldn’t lose sleep over using skin products like sunscreens with nanomaterials, says Maynard, because research indicates that the skin is pretty good at keeping nanomaterials out of the body. Ingesting nanomaterials is of little concern as well, though Maynard does note that researchers currently “know very little” about the effects of consuming the microscopic particles.

On the other hand, inhalation of them can be harmful, especially to nano-factory workers, who are the most likely to be exposed.

“Nanomaterial inhalation is probably the area of most concern simply because it’s well known that it’s never good to have particles of materials in the lungs that aren’t supposed to be there,” says Maynard. Most importantly, he says, consumers should look out for anything that could expose them to nanomaterials in large quantities. As with all chemicals, natural or synthetic, the dose makes the poison.

Unfortunately, determining whether products have nanomaterials in them can be challenging because the government currently does not require manufacturers to list nanomaterials as ingredients. As a result, most consumers are still unaware that these microscopic materials are in everything from body washes and baby wipes.

But there are resources for consumers that want to know more, including The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies consumer products database, which currently lists more than 500 manufacturer-identified nanotechnology-based consumer products currently on the market.

Researchers and even one environmental group are also working together to make nanotechnology safer so that it can used to help the environment. Recently the Environmental Defense Fund and DuPont collaborated to develop the Nano Risk Framework to help identify, manage and reduce potential risks of nanoscale materials, although environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have denounced their peer for developing a framework that is “at best, a public-relations campaign.”

“It’s a promising cleaner energy technology,” says Scott Walsh, project manager of the Environmental Defense Fund, though he does point out that “we want to make sure that we’re not repeating mistakes of the past (like using DDT and asbestos) by failing to assess the risks.”

More governmental regulation of nanotechnology may be on the way. The National Nanotech Initiative, a program established in 2001 to coordinate federal nanotechnology research and development, is up for reauthorization. The new bill is expected to have a much stronger emphasis on understanding how to develop nanomaterial products safely, says Maynard. According to NanoBusiness Alliance attorney Paul Stimers, the nanotech industry is looking forward to more research under the initiative. “The last thing we want is for people to be worried about this stuff, so we want the federal government to develop more data to make people feel comfortable [about nanotechnology],” Stimer says.

While enviro-groups, scientists, and the government are busy sorting out nanotech’s messy details, here’s a round-up of some greener nanotech applications on the horizon that just might make the world a more sustainable place to live:

The Nano Sponge

No, it’s not “The Sponge” made famous by Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes who stalked the streets of Manhattan searching for her favorite contraceptive; its super-absorbing properties that can potentially clean up oil spills and other organic pollutants certainly make it “sponge-worthy.” Created by MIT scientists, this paper-like interwoven mesh of nanowires has the ability to soak up to 20 times its weight in oil, is impervious to water, and can be recycled many times over for future use. According to the researchers, the oil itself is also recoverable—a pretty important attribute considering that 200,000 tons of oil has already been spilled at sea since the start of the decade. The nanowire paper could also impact filtering and the purification of water, according to the MIT press release. The best part? The paper-esque material is cheap to produce and can be made in large quantities.

A Better Brita

Enjoy your Brita filter but wish it was portable? So do the more than 1 billion people who lack access to safe water. That’s why water-purifying company Seldon Technologies has developed several portable options to transform dirty, contaminated water into drinkable water through the use of carbon nanotube technology. “We wanted to do something about the number one health hazard in the world,” explains Alan Cummings, CEO of Seldon. While other water companies use nano ceramic material for filtration, Seldon is the first to use carbon nanotubes, known for their unique material properties (such as high electrical conductivity, light weight, and great strength) and versatility. The carbon nanotubes, which look like a roll of chicken wire inside another roll of chicken wire, are extremely tiny but the “strongest thing known to man.” The Seldon WaterBox’s unique carbon nanotube material removes bacteria, virus, cysts and other contaminants from water without the need for heat, ultra-violet light, chemicals, electricity or waiting time and can clean up to 700 gallons of water within a 24-hour period. Seldon also sells the WaterStick, a fat straw-like filtration system that you drink through directly using a hand pump or through the bite valve (an attachment at the end of a hose) of a hydration pack.

The Fixer Upper

Superfund sites have become synonymous with stagnation due to bankruptcy and not-so-environmentally-friendly governmental leadership, but the EPA is in the process of cleaning up its act, at least when it comes to polluted industrial messes. According to EPA press officer Roxanne Smith, “EPA’s Superfund Program is interested in the various potential applications of nanotechnology for hazardous waste site remediation and pollution control.”

She says that the agency is currently investigating the potential of nanofilters, nanotechnology-enabled sensors, and nanomaterials to improve the ability to detect and clean up toxic chemical sites. Environmental remediation firm Lehigh Nanotech is also using nanotech to clean up industry messes, using zero-valent nano-iron products (think black ink splotches) composed almost entirely of iron to clean up sites contaminated with chlorinated compounds like degreasers, dry cleaner fluid and computer circuit board cleaners, according to Paul Osimo, vice president of Lehigh. The ultra-fine particles of pure iron are first injected into a contaminated source to search and destroy contaminants. Once the iron particles break apart the contaminants, the iron turns to rust and becomes benign. “There’s already a lot of rust in the ground, so it doesn’t harm anything,” says Osimo. Some recent cleanup sites include Department of Defense facilities and chemical manufacturing plants. Lehigh has also had success with its NanoOx product, a nanoscale oxygen release compound that’s used for remediation of leaking underground fuel oil tanks.

Solar Efficiency

Though sun-worshippers long ago figured out how to harness the sun, improving the efficiency of solar cells hasn’t been quite so easy. But nano-infused solar technologies are heating up and could shine light on new solutions. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame, for example, are getting close to making solar power more efficient by adding single-walled carbon nanotubes to a film made of titanium-dioxide nanoparticles. This process doubles the efficiency of conventional solar cells, although the carbon-nanotube and nanoparticle system is not yet a viable solar cell option because titanium oxide (a main ingredient in white paint) only absorbs ultraviolet light. Scientists are researching ways to modify the nanoparticles to absorb the visible spectrum. Several solar power companies, including Nanosolar, which has created the industry’s largest solar production tool, a thin-film coater that uses nanoparticle ink and has the capacity to produce up to 1 gigawatt of solar cells annually. Nanosolar claims to produce the world’s “lowest cost solar panels,” but don’t bother getting out the wallet just yet. Right now the company is doing so well that its products are completely sold out for the next year.

Story by Jessica Knoblauch. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008