Debra Lynn Dadd

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Nanotechnologies

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, nanotechnology is "the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications." If you are wondering what a "nano" is, it is on billionth of something; a nanometer, for example, is one billionth of a meter. A nanometer is infinitesimally small--a grain of sand is 1 million nanometers across, a human hair is 80,000 nanometers in diameter, and a red blood cell measures 10,000 nanometers across.

These particles are so small, they fall right out of the world of gross matter and into the world of quantum mechanics, where everything is different. In the nano world, particles can change shape and crystalline structure, and magnetic, optical, and electrical properties.

While experimenting in the nano realm opens a whole new world of possibilities to product developers, tinkering with with nano-particles may not be the best thing for life. Nanotechnologies seem to be rocketing forward without much regard to human or environmental safety.

Nano-particles are being used, for example, in cosmetic products applied to the skin. While it is not yet known exactly what happens to nano-particles once they enter our bodies, it is known that they pass through body tissue and cell membranes more easily than larger particles, the pass between blood and lung tissue, they pass through the blood-brain barrier, and they pass through the placenta into fetal circulation. Our bodies are already having difficulty with particles the size of chemical gasses. They have no mechanism to deal with filtering or detoxifying nano-particles.

On 16 May 2006, a coalition of eight environmental groups--including Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace--filed a petition with the FDA asking them specifically to strengthen its regulation of sunscreens that contain nono-sized particles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. The petition states that particles of that size pose health and environmental risks, including possible inflammatory and immune responses in the human body. (Another reason not to wear sunscreen -- see Debra's Guide to Choosing Natural Sun Protection to learn how to protect your skin from the sun safely.)

In 1997, a study at Oxford University found that nanoparticles used in sunscreens created free radicals that damaged DNA. Another study showed effects on fish after only 48 hours.

Much of the material for this article was taken from "Welcome to Nano World" in the May 2006 issue of Alternative Medicine magazine.

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies A good site for keeping up on what's happening with nanotechnologies, including a Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory that contains products that use nanotechnoligies.

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