Nanotechnology is one of the most interesting relatively new sciences to evolve. First predicted by physicist Richard Feynman in 1959, nanotechnology finally become feasible in 1981 with the arrival of the scanning tunneling microscope. Today, nanotechnology is common throughout our world and promises to pervade it even further. Although nanoparticles have been used for centuries, it has only been in the last several decades that our technology has allowed us to build and manipulate nanomaterials.
Nanotechnology is one of those fields that offer incredible application yet potentially massive unforeseen danger. For example, on the positive side (Ryan Bradley, “The Great Big Question about Really Tiny Materials” Fortune, March 15, 2015, pp. 192–202):
“Nanomaterials . . . deliver highly targeted drugs to specific areas of the body and root out cancerous cells. Antibacterial nanoparticles like silver and copper are, when used properly, undoubtedly responsible for limiting the spread of disease. A new tool for fighting cancers and viruses is a nanoscale explosive nicknamed a buckybomb, which can reach a temperature of 7,232° F and attack exactly what needs destroying inside the body without harming the surrounding cells.” (pp. 201–202)
On the cautionary side, quite a bit of research is continuing (as it should) on the dangers of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is so great precisely because it is so small. Just imagine having a team of nanorobots injected into your bloodstream that would automatically locate and destroy arterial plaque. However, this same ninja quality renders nanotechnology so potentially dangerous. We do not have all the answers on unintended consequences of any particular nanoapplication nor do we necessarily have absolute protection from nanotechnology’s negative consequences. Because the science is so new, we remain at that tenuous phase in which we do yet know what we do not know.
As one example, titanium dioxide is one of the most common whiteners added to a variety of consumer and industrial products. Under normal circumstances it presents no health problems. However, at the nanoscale we find clear evidence that sloppiness with nanotechnology can create catastrophes:
“Nano-size titanium dioxide, in particular, can sneak into parts of the body that most particles cannot—such as bone marrow, ovaries, lymph nodes, and nerves. It can cross the blood-brain barrier or enter cells and destroy genetic material. . . . In 2010 a molecular biologist at UCLA’s School of Public Health began lacing drinking water with titanium dioxide, gave it to mice, and quickly found it was wreaking havoc on the animals’ chromosomes and DNA, which can lead to increased rates of cancer, as well as heart and neurological disease.” (p. 194)
I am ever grateful for the marvelous advantages we gain via technology. Nevertheless, I am the first to raise the flag if a serious danger presents through the misuse or misapplication of that same technology. Nanotechnology is something we definitely want to promote, but let’s be certain we are learning just as much about its dangers as its benefits.