A consumer’s guide to nanotechnology


White Swan Uniforms and Scrubs with Nano-Tex

How cool is this: A nanotech-enabled labcoat to protect the user against… well, nanomaterials presumably, amongst other things!  

The labcoat—which uses Nanotex technology to make it stain resistant—is part of a major update to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory that tracks manufacture-identified nano-products.  Other eye-catchers in the update include a hunting shirt that resists bloodstains, a nanotech-based adhesive for McDonald’s burger containers, and an oven-like device for sanitizing whiffy shoes.

Of course, there are plenty of people who feel that consumer products represent an altogether too trivial side of nanotechnology.  And I have to agree that on the scales of virtue, a nano-silver bidet would find it hard to compete with the next generation of nano-enabled solar cells or targeted cancer drugs.  Yet trivial as many of the 800+ products in the updated inventory may seem, this is where most people will probably first come across the technology, and start to form their early opinions on whether it’s a good thing, or not so good.  

And in this bizarrely-connected world within which we live, good experience with nano-bidets (for example) are more likely than not to make the introduction of nano-cancer drugs go just that little bit smoother.

But beyond initial impressions, consumer products in their broadest sense are where some of the first widespread exposures to engineered nanomaterials are likely to occur.  And this means that care is needed over how nanomaterials are used in these products, and how that use is monitored and regulated.  

In the US, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is responsible for protecting the public against unreasonable risks of injury or death associated with consumer products.  But recently, the CPSC has been struggling with low-tech problems like lead in children’s toys, and there is concern that this doesn’t bode well for the agency’s ability to tackle high tech nanotechnology-based products.

This is the conclusion of a new report by E. Marla Felcher of Harvard University’s Kennedy School.  In “The Consumer Product Safety Commission and Nanotechnology,” published by the Project on Nanotechnologies, Felcher paints a picture of CPSC as an agency of lofty ideals, crippled by a lack of political support, dwindling resources, inadequate scientific expertise and inadequate authority.  In the report’s executive summary, she writes

“CPSC’s inability to carry out its mandate with respect to simple, low-tech products such as Thomas the Tank Engine toy trains, Barbie dolls and Easy-Bake Ovens bodes poorly for its ability to oversee the safety of complex, high-tech products made using nanotechnology. The agency lacks the budget, the statutory authority and the scientific expertise to ensure that the hundreds of nanoproducts now on the market, among them baby bottle nipples, infant teething rings, teddy bears, paints, waxes, kitchenware and appliances, are safe. This problem will only worsen as more sophisticated nanotechnology-based products begin to enter the consumer market.”

The critique is harsh—all the more so because CPSC staff are clearly trying hard to get their heads around the challenges that nanotechnology is presenting them with.  Yet according to Felcher, the problems lie not so much with the staff as with the agency’s lack of information, resources and authority.  To ensure CPSC is nano-ready (and more broadly, emerging technology-ready), she recommends that:

  • The agency’s knowledge-base is built-up,
  • that CPSC work closely with other health and safety agencies,
  • that information on nano-products is solicited from companies,
  • that a Chronic Health Advisory Panel is convened to evaluate potential risks associated with nano-products for children,
  • that the agency appeal to industry to develop voluntary safety standards for children’s products,
  • and that the US congress take action on the Consumer product Safety Act bill to increase CPSC’s authority to address products based on new and emerging technologies.

There’s a good chance that many of the allegedly nanotechnology-enabled products entering the market are harmless (or at least, mostly harmless).  But a combination of novel and sometimes unpredictable material behaviour, few checks and balances to use and an inadequately resourced and empowered regulator seems like a dangerous combination; when a potentially harmful nano-product does come along, there aren’t, it seems, many barriers to prevent problems from occurring.  

And we are still dealing with very simple nanotechnologies—nanoparticles of silver, titania and carbon in the main.  What happens when consumer product manufacturers start to use more complex nanotechnologies?

OK so nano-consumerism may seem rather trivial in the grand scheme of things.  But the impacts of nano-consumerism gone wrong could be far from inconsequential.  So if we want to see the less trivial products of nanotechnology—the renewable energy sources, the high performance batteries, the smart drugs—now might be a good time to make sure the first waves of products perform well without causing harm.

Now, back to that shoe de-whiffer—I think my “nano  silver far infrared  anti-odor healthy socks” need a little help…



This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in August 2008

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