No Small Task: Regulating Nanotechnology To Ensure Safety, Maximize Benefits

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Courtesy of Bergeson & Campbell, P.C.

Nanotechnology is about engineering at the same size as large molecules like DNA, which is two nanometers wide — a nanometer is a billionth of a meter — or even smaller. Smallness has its virtues. Nanoscale zinc oxide diffracts light better, making a better sunscreen. Similarly, ultrathin nanoscale films are improving the efficiency of cell phone screens and photovoltaics. In the future, moving molecules around at the nanoscale holds the hope of ultra-low-pollution energy, near-zero-waste manufacturing, and easier remediation of all kinds of problems.

But nanotech engineered materials, which can be on the same scale as viruses, enzymes, and proteins, have raised concerns that like these biological items they too can move easily into living cells. More difficult for regulators, a substance that is chemically identical can have entirely different properties when engineered at the nanoscale, compared to its bulk scale counterpart. Further, because they are tiny, nanomaterials might easily escape detection in the environment, causing damage and difficulty in cleaning up.

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