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June 20th, 2007
Take nanomaterials, for instance. Made with tiny particles approaching the size of molecules and atoms, nanomaterials exhibit unusual properties not typical of "ordinary" materials made from the same stuff. Nanoparticles of gold flow like a liquid. Nanoparticles of copper are transparent. Nanotechnology promises huge benefits in medicine, engineering and other areas, but it's also been widely adopted for more frivolous things: hair gels, sunscreen and cosmetics, for example. In fact, you can find more than 450 commercial products today made with nanomaterials ... which is probably more than the number of consumers you can find who know that.
Here's the problem: we're eating stuff and putting stuff on our skin and out in the environment, and yet we don't really know what effects these actions have. Nanoscale titanium dioxide in sunscreen, for example, has been shown to have the potential to damage DNA. Even the scientists who specialize in nanotechnology are concerned about the rapid adoption of such products in the marketplace (see "EPA and Nanotechnology: Oversight for the 21st Century"). Is this responsible? How do we manage technological advances wisely without slowing progress that could benefit many? I don't know the answer, but I'll be interested in discussing potential solutions.
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