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We’re often quick to embrace new technologies even before we understand them. Did you know there are now antibacterial silver nanoparticles showing up in various everyday products like washing machines and food storage containers and slippers and even computer mice?

But wait…first you might want to ask “what’s a nanoparticle and why should I care?” Good question.

A nanoparticle is a microscopic particle whose size is measured in nanometers. And a nanometer is one BILLIONTH of a meter. Most of us can’t even wrap our brains around how small that is. But nanoparticles are being touted as a revolutionary technological advance that can change our lives. And it will. According to an article in the NRDC’s magazine OnEarth, there are potentially marvelous medical applications:

In the medical field, nanotechnology is expected to lead to dozens of innovations: new methods of cancer treatment that deliver chemotherapy directly to the tumor, earlier cancer detection using nanowires that can spot derangements in just a few protein cells, new methods of blood vessel grafting during heart surgery using nanoglue formed from nanospheres of silica coated in gold.

And industry of all types is rushing to jump on the nano-bandwagon – which is not so nano any more.

Nanotechnology, fast becoming a three-trillion-dollar industry, is about to revolutionize our world….The field is a textbook example of exponential growth. According to Lux Research, an emerging-technologies research and advisory firm based in New York that has tracked the industry since 2001, the total value of all products worldwide that incorporated nanotechnology was $13 billion in 2004. That figure grew to $32 billion in 2005 and to $50 billion in 2006, and Lux Research projects it will reach $2.6 trillion by 2014.

But the article goes on to say:

Unfortunately, hardly anyone is stopping to ask whether it’s safe.

Oh. That.

There are many potentially amazing applications for nanotechnology. I certainly don’t argue against innovation. But what the article reminds us is that we have rushed headlong into something we don’t yet understand.

We don’t know how these unbelievably tiny particles will react with our own bodies. If you are using a nanosilver-coated mouse, is that getting into you in some way we can’t understand? Some people think that our bodies may react to these tiny silver particles in ways that might not be good for us. But we just don’t know. And as for what nanoparticles will do to our oceans and rivers and the sea life within, we also don’t know.

But of course, we have government agencies to handle that, don’t we? Yes…and there are people in government who really care. But these are also the same agencies that allowed imports from China that killed our pets and gave lead-paint toys to our kids. And the same government that made it easier to put mercury into our air. And not surprisingly, games are even being played with the way these products are promoted and classified to all-together circumvent existing regulations and agencies.

So, while I’m not saying we should bring progress to a screeching halt, I am suggesting that maybe…just maybe…we should take this stuff seriously and spend time and effort figuring out just what we are getting ourselves into. I don’t care how many trillions of dollars this stuff is worth. This is about our safety. Let’s at least play it smart.

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For a great article that tells it much better than I can, click here:

NRDC OnEarth Magazine: Our Silver-Coated Future