Science //

Is your sunscreen trying to kill you?

Kate McDonell investigates the possibilities and risks of nanotechnology

The year is 2020 and the world is controlled by swarms of roving nanobots…

…while that is never going to be a reality nanotechnology is already all around us. It is part of the food we eat (if it’s genetically modified), in our computers and even in your sunscreen. The nanotechnological revolution won’t be ending any time soon. Recently, scientists created a material lighter than air which will have a significant impact on electronics.

Part of this interest lies in material properties at nanoscale (‘nano’ being one billionth of a metre) being significantly different from those on a larger scale. This small size also poses some legitimate health concerns. With so much economic potential, in a race for end products, how well are benefits and risks being balanced? Will regulation stifle scientific and commercial freedoms? The risks posed by nanomaterials have been acknowledged as unknown by the World Health Organisation.

There isn’t a simple answer. Carbon nanotubes, which are shaped like a straw and are 1/60000th of the diameter of a human hair, have been shown to produce similar symptoms to those of asbestos exposure in the lungs of mice. Nanotubes are one of the strongest materials on earth and potential applications range from light sabre batteries to space elevator cables and even body armour.

Nanomaterials can also be used in medicine as they are so small they can travel through the bloodstream. This means more targeted drug delivery and better imaging for things like cancer. But we don’t know what happens to them once they get there.

Kathleen Eggleson, a research scientist at the Center for Nano Science and Technology at the University of Notre Dame (USA) said in the Chicago Tribune “we haven’t characterised these materials very well in terms of what the potential impacts on living organisms could be.”

For researchers, this means using a precautionary principle – assume the worst and cover all bases. For the average consumer, there’s no need to panic. Not all nanomaterials are hazardous to health; if you are concerned about what you’re using look at the product warnings.

Hopefully, sometime soon, I’ll be putting my order in for a teleportation device and a hoverboard.

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