Nanotechnology and the products that you can make with it are all around us. The government and private companies have spent a lot of money to develop nanotechnology. But is it safe? The answer is, we just don’t know for sure. But lots of scientists are working on figuring that out!
Some people think nanotechnology is safe because a lot of nanomaterials are not much different than things that we find in nature. For example, the first carbon nanotubes were not made in a high-tech laboratory but actually found in a furnace.On the other hand, some people think that nanotechnology is dangerous because some materials look just like asbestos, for instance, which we know can cause cancer. So what is the truth? Probably a little bit of both, and scientists around the world are studying all different kinds of nanotechnology products looking for answers about what is safe and what is not. But it’s a pretty complicated process, because what makes things harmful? It depends on what they’re made of, their size and shape, and also how they might enter your body.
You could, for example, take a piece of steel and make it into a nice piece of jewelry for someone to enjoy, or you could shape it into a bullet and shoot it at a high speed that can cause some damage. Take that very same piece of steel and implant it into certain parts of your body and it could stay there not doing any harm for a long, long time. Because of their very tiny size, sometimes nanotechnology products can cause problems if they are inhaled. Asbestos was at one time found to be a great insulator and was used to coat pipes that got very hot, as insulation in the walls of buildings, and even around electrical wires. Asbestos is made out of silicates, kind of the same stuff that is found in sand. But it wasn’t until about 100 years after it was first used very effectively as insulation and for fire protection that we found out asbestos can also cause lung cancer when its molecules are inhaled.
The government is currently spending a lot of money to test the safety of nanotechnology products, but testing these products is not easy and we don’t have a lot of good ways to do it yet. The best way is probably to use animals, although nobody really knows how much to test and what kind of animals to use. And using animals also poses an ethical problem. Developing better ways of testing will bring us closer to understanding how we can use nanotechnology and might also help us predict what kinds of nanotechnology materials are safe and which ones we need to be careful with.