Nice Nanostuff, But Is It Safe? 

With their futuristic industry out ahead of government regulators, some nanotech purveyors have concerns about their public image.

At Walnut Creek's Nordstrom store, nanotechnology is taking over Men's Sportswear. Not the minuscule, creepy-crawly robots science fiction writers imagine will someday learn to self-replicate and destroy civilization -- this nonfictional wave of technological innovation is found in the khaki pants stacked neatly on glossy tables, and in the cotton button-down shirts that bear the Smartcare(TM) tag. A discreet sign on a nearby shelf explains: "Smart Clothes: clothing that thinks like you."

These clothes expect people to be slobs, so they're engineered to repel spills and stains. They know people don't like morning hassles, so they're virtually wrinkle-free and hold their creases without making customers haul out the iron. They do all this because an Emeryville-based company, Nano-Tex, has come up with a process to enhance fabric through nanotechnology.

In the spill-resistant pants, for instance, a Nano-Tex chemical process binds molecules of an industry-standard water repellent to the individual cotton fibers. This makes the fabric's water-resistance more effective, more durable, and invisible to consumers. "That's the holy grail of enhancements," says Mark Brutten, Nano-Tex's vice president of marketing. "You shouldn't know that it's there until it does its magic trick."

This unheralded arrival isn't how most people expected nanotech to enter their lives. The public imagination has been captured by highly speculative, intensely hyped concepts such as tiny nanorobots that could dash through arteries to clean the bloodstream, yet nanotech already has slipped into consumer products including suntan lotions, cosmetics, sports equipment, and textiles.

That's just for starters: The National Science Foundation predicts that nano-related goods and services could be a $1 trillion market by 2015. This has some tech watchdogs worried that product deployment is outpacing the government's ability to oversee the new industry, and any health and safety issues it creates.

The loudest call yet for nanotech-specific regulations came two weeks ago in a report from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a DC think tank. Author J. Clarence Davies -- who served as assistant administrator for policy, planning, and evaluation at the US Environmental Protection Agency under the first President Bush -- says he began his work assuming that existing regulations were sufficient. "But when I looked at the problems of the regulatory system in regards to the nanotech industry, I came to the conclusion that a new law is needed," he says.

Current state and federal statutes can't easily be applied to the new industry, he discovered. "The sort of scary thing is that the weaknesses of the regulatory system match up with the most active sectors of the nanotech industry," Davies says. He points to nanotech applications in food -- like a new chocolate chewing gum on the market, and a nanotech-enhanced canola oil -- as a sector that is racing ahead without regulation. "That's the kind of thing that worries people like me, when you have really high exposures and you have no assurance that anyone has looked at this stuff to make sure it's safe," he says.

Environmental groups such as Environmental Defense are also calling for a more cautious approach, and with regulatory uncertainty in the air, local nanotech companies are wondering what the future holds. Emeryville hosts not just Nano-Tex, but also Nanomix, which makes delicate sensors to detect gases in industrial settings. In Hayward, Quantum Dot Corporation is making biotech strides with light-emitting nanocrystals that can be inserted into cells to monitor their actions in the laboratory.

In a West Berkeley warehouse, meanwhile, two young entrepreneurs conduct business surrounded by stacks of boxes filled with jars of Flex-Power. Their product, a topical cream for muscle and joint pain relief, has caught on among pro athletes, and signed jerseys from 49ers and Raiders players hang on the walls. Flex-Power uses nanoparticles called liposomes to carry painkillers through the skin and deliver them to the muscles and joints. Because it uses painkillers that previously have received FDA approval, the ointment didn't require a rigorous application process.

Such diverse applications highlight the first challenge in regulating nanotech: simply defining it. The term generally describes products and processes involving the manipulation of materials 1 to 100 nanometers across. (For comparison, a red blood cell is about 7,000 nanometers wide.) In his report, Davies ponders whether it even makes sense to talk about regulating nanotechnology per se -- he compares it to regulating "things that are blue or things that are very large."

Despite years of vague talk of the potential dangers, researchers are just beginning to publish hard data on the health effects of specific nanoparticles. Of the $1 billion spent by the federal National Nanotechnology Initiative on research and development last year, about 4 percent went toward studies on environment, health, or safety ramifications. "The research that's been done is enough for us to ask the right questions, and realize that there are one or two problems here," says Andrew Maynard, the senior researcher at Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

The initial evidence shows that some nanoparticles are more hazardous than others. For example, carbon nanotubes of the kind used by Emeryville's Nanomix have been found to accumulate and cause inflammation in the lungs of rodents. And researchers are studying whether cadmium-selenide quantum dots, the kind made by Hayward's Quantum Dot Corporation, accumulate in the body, and if so, whether they damage cells the way larger molecules of cadmium-selenide can.

Pinning down the basic science is just the first step toward regulation. Researchers would next have to determine the likelihood that people would be exposed to the potential hazard. "If you hold a computer memory chip in your hand, it's hardly likely to make you sick," Maynard says. "But if you have a handful of powder in your hand made of carbon nanotubes, you'd be a little more concerned."

Brutten of Nano-Tex says he wouldn't be surprised to see regulations in the next five years, but doesn't foresee any problem for his company. "To be honest, we're sort of hoping that there are going to be some regulations, because I think it would make our lives a hell of a lot easier," he says.

Because the molecules used in Nano-Tex fabrics are too large to get through the skin and cannot be absorbed by the body, Brutten explains, regulations would help alleviate the generalized fears he hears sometimes from clients and investors. "Right now what we're dealing with is a condemnation of the entire industry," he says.

Indeed, the dearth of public knowledge at this early phase in the industry's development can be a double-edged sword, according to analysts at Lux Research, a New York-based nanotech research and advisory firm. "There's the real risks -- the possibility that a nanoparticle or some novel nanomaterial could actually have a harmful effect on people or the environment," says Michael Holman, who contributed to the company's report on potential dangers. "There are also perceptual risks. Irrespective of whether materials are harmful or not, if it becomes perceived as something harmful, that's also a problem."

Lux Research's report recommends that potential investors take a hard look at any real risks a product could pose throughout its lifecycle from factory floor to landfill. But just as important is the need for stakeholders to explain the new technology to the public, to prevent consumers from getting the wrong idea. "Consumer awareness of nanotech is so low that no hardened opinions exist, so there's room for a fact-based debate," the report says.

Like others in his industry, Brutten is concerned about blanket statements made by environmental groups with an ax to grind. "We've got to get away from these one-size-fits-all generalizations," he says. "Those are usually made by people who don't know enough to be specific. But they're saying some really inflammatory things."

Industry insiders are hoping to avoid a repeat of another public debate that is often high on spectacle and short on hard science. "I cringe every time the comparison to genetically modified foods is made," Brutten says. At the peak of the GMO food debate, protesters would dress as "Frankentomatoes" and such to raise public concerns about the new technology. There are signs of a similar protest movement mobilizing around nanotech: Last spring, activists made the news for stripping naked in Chicago to reveal slogans painted on their bodies, such as "Expose the truth about nanotech."

Their target? An Eddie Bauer store in Chicago that sells Nano-Tex pants.

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