Toxins at your fingertips
Sass's comments bring us back to that keyboard. Does yours contain nanosilver, a substance that studies suggest can damage part of the human cell that creates cellular energy and induce oxidative stress in people as well as disrupt the nitrogen balance in freshwater ecosystems?
Most likely, you don't know. And you probably can't easily find out. Many products don't disclose -- nor are they required to by law -- that they contain nanomaterials, according to Sass, Davis and other nanotechnology researchers.
What does that mean for a data-entry clerk typing all day? Or for the IT worker setting up desktop systems, handling upgrades or changing cards, all of which may contain either nanomaterials or components containing nanoelectronics?
And what happens when those products need to be replaced? If that computer keyboard is recycled, would that nanosilver be released into the air or water?
"Those are the issues that need to be addressed, and they're just not on the table right now," Davis says.
But others counter that statement. They say that while scientists need to do more research, they already know that a number of factors limit the potential dangers posed by nanotechnology.
One of the most significant factors to consider is the fact that humans evolved in the presence of nanoparticles, says R. Stanley Williams, director of information and the quantum systems laboratory at HP Labs.
"People are concerned about manmade nanoparticles in the environment, and there is certainly reason to be careful and not do anything foolish. But on the other hand, human beings aren't the only nanotechnologists on earth. There are thousands of species of animals that synthesize nanoparticles, and our environment is filled with nanoparticles. We just didn't know it until we had tools that could see them," Williams says.
Even so, industry is taking steps to minimize exposure.
Leading manufacturers, whose workers likely face the greatest risk of exposure, follow protocols to contain manufactured nanoparticles as well as any conventional materials fabricated on a nanoscale, says Mihail Roco, senior advisor for nanotechnology at the US National Science Foundation.
Workers at Intel wear protective gear, use HEPP (high-efficiency pleated polypropylene) filters and work under hoods where air pressure pulls wayward particles away from workers and into filters, says Todd Brady, Intel's corporate environmental manager.
The company, which makes nanoscale transistors for its chips and experiments with nanomaterials, has also teamed with universities and government agencies to explore applications and health and environmental implications arising from nanotechnology.
"We want to look at our technology road map and see what risks there might be with any of the materials we'll use so we can take steps to minimize them," Brady says.
Technology users also have a measure of protection against exposure thanks to the very nature of nanotechnology, Roco and others say.
Nanoparticles are bound with other materials to make a final product, and although data on whether nanoparticles can be released during use or disposal is still being gathered, scientists point to studies that show the nanomaterials stay bound and therefore won't harm humans or the environment.
"These are so tightly locked down that there's no way the nanoparticles can get out. You can beat on them with a hammer, and they still won't get out," Williams says.
In fact, the Toxicological Sciences article "Nanotechnology Safety Concerns Revisited" supports the human ability to cope with nanoparticles, saying, "The available data support the ability of the lung, gastrointestinal tract and skin to act as a significant barrier to the systemic exposure of many nanomaterials. Furthermore, the acute systemic toxicity of many nanomaterials appear to be low."
Moreover, scientists, even those who more aggressively warn about potential risks, point out that nanotechnology promises health and environmental benefits.
Nanotechnology might be used to track tumors, clean up contaminated water and soil, and reduce the need for resources and energy. The potential benefits, they say, are nearly limitless.
As Semiconductor Industry Association spokesman John Greenagel says, "There's no question that we'll find uses for nanotechnology that we'll take for granted 10 or 20 years from now that we can't even think about now."