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April 3rd, 2007
Nanomaterials (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter) for commercial use, such as sunscreens, clothing, computer chips, and cosmetics, already have been produced. Disposable imaging capsules that can be swallowed may soon be coursing through human blood vessels to produce detailed images noninvasively. Nanometers and other tiny microscopic-size devices built from DNA molecules that travel through the body in search of pathogens to eliminate may become as common as IV bottles.
As noted by the National Research Council, however, nanomaterials have unusual and useful properties, but their unique attributes make them a doubleedged sword. They can be tailored to yield specific benefits, but also can have unknown and possibly negative impacts such as unexpected toxicological and environmental effects. The environmental, health, and safety implications of nanotechnology are of significant concern to and a topic of serious discussion by government agencies and commissions, nongovernmental organizations, the research community, industry, insurers, the media, and the public.
Gold and other substances that are inactive in bulk form become highly reactive at the nanoscale level. As particle size decreases, more atoms are found on the surface compared with those in the interior. Increased relative surface area can lead to a change in chemical properties, raising the possibility that nanoparticles can pose a threat as a new form of pollution. Health concerns revolve around dangers in the workplace, waste streams from industry and laboratories, skin surface contact with cosmetics, ingestion of food and beverages containing nanoparticles, injection of medicinal products, and excretion of medical particles that are not biodegraded.
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