When I was assigned to work on our QUEST story on nanotechnology, I braced myself for the complex terrain ahead. The focus is on the public policy implications of the surge in consumer goods containing nanoparticles. And just how big is the market for nano-manufactured goods? According to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a partnership between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, there are hundreds of products available to consumers that contain manufactured nanomaterials. They run the gamut from tennis rackets to toothpaste to air purifiers and even stuffed animals which contain antibacterial nanosilver. Lux Research projects that the worldwide market for nano-manufactured goods will exceed 2 trillion dollars by 2014.
Meanwhile, the federal government has been criticized for failing to regulate more stringently the use of nanoparticles and for not investing enough dollars to study the effects of their exposure. Even when the federal authorities do act, like when they ruled that germ-killing products laced with nanosilver must be registered as pesticides, it makes you scratch your head at how outdated some of our environmental laws are and ill-equipped to deal with materials that came online after the laws were written.
The nuts and bolts of producing this story were challenging as well. To lay out the public policy debate, we needed to get opinions and facts from an environmental organization, the federal government and a firm that is actually manufacturing products at the nano-scale. I was also fortunate to get access to Kent Pinkerton and his colleagues at UC Davis, who are studying the exposure effects of quantum dots and carbon nanotubes on rodents. Special thanks goes to my Associate Producer, Jenny Oh, for securing an important interview with Dr. John Howard, the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. As I was about to commence my interview with Dr. Howard, I ran through with him the list of questions, including one about respirators and whether they would adequately protect exposure to materials that are thousands of times smaller than the human hair. Without missing a beat, Dr. Howard grabbed his pen, asked me for a sheet of paper and drew a sketch of a filter lattice, explaining how yes, thanks to Brownian motion, the tiny nanoparticles would be moving around so wildly that they would bounce off the surface of the lattice. Bigger particles, on the other hand, may get through the lattice.
Discussion about nanotechnology, its benefits, its risks, the knowns and unknowns will continue for some time. Perhaps QUEST will revisit nanotechnology as new breakthroughs emerge and science reveals more clearly how nanoparticles affect the environment and living organisms.