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May 25th, 2009
By Varun Dutt: As the first set of new products hit the Indian market, concerns have been raised about nanotechnology's toxicity and environmental impact.
Nanotechnology is the control of matter at the atomic or molecular level, less than the size of 100 nanometers -that's one billionth of a metre, or 40,000 times smaller than the human hair. It has the potential to create many new materials and devices with wide-ranging applications. Yet it has also raises many of the issues which any new technology triggers, including concerns about toxicity and environmental impact of nanomaterials.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a US-based non-profit body says that around 1,000 new nanotech products are currently available globally, hitting the market at a pace of three to four a week. According to American Elements, a leading manufacturer of advanced products, thousands of nanoparticles, nanopowders and nanotubes products are already playing a significant role in industry, environment, medicine, science and even at home.
For the developing world, nanotech has its own set of benefits and risks. In a country like India, it may provide new solutions for the millions who lack access to basic services, such as safe water, reliable energy, health care, and education. The 2004 UN task force on science, technology and innovation noted that some of the advantages of nanotech include high productivity, low cost, and modest requirements for materials and energy. Also, it uses less labour, requires less land and lower maintenance. But the benefits should be seen against the potential risk to the environment, human health and worker safety.
At the moment, though, most of the fears are just that—fears. But there's a great challenge before the manufacturers on how to deal with nanopollution. Perhaps there's a need for regulation in this area which could then restore the balance between the benefits and costs — and release the technology to usher in the brave new world it has promised.
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