Thursday, April 03, 2008

Nanotech, Gigapoison

Not to be a fear-monger, but nanomaterials might make you sick. Not just you, but your family, your neighbors, even pets and wild animals. And it doesn’t matter whether or not you actually use anything with nanomaterials yourself; they’ll come to you. Yes, we’re talking here about the scaled-down substances that are the next big thing — the wave (and fad) of the future, contained in everything from batteries to computer chips, food to fuel, sunscreen to solar cells.

A new report from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition suggests that, because of their very popularity, nanomaterials are likely to cause the next instance of high-tech pollution, similar to the pollution caused in the early 1980s by Fairchild Semiconductor and IBM that poisoned hundreds in the Bay Area and cost those companies hundreds of millions in settlements and cleanup fees. The same scenario could well occur again, both to large companies and to younger, venture-funded startups just beginning to manufacture nano-scale products, says the SVTC.

To be fair to nanomaterials, there’s no proof yet — at least outside laboratories — that they’re harmful when released into the wild. But that’s exactly the problem. There’s no history of nanomaterial use; therefore, we can’t be sure what will happen. And here’s the second problem: Some of the few nanomaterials to have been tested in labs have been shown to sicken living organisms, and those few are only the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the many possible materials that can be used.

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