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The Nanotech Gamble: AOL News' Key Findings

Mar 24, 2010 – 9:23 AM
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(March 24) -- Along with two Pulitzer Prizes, senior public health correspondent Andrew Schneider's decades of groundbreaking investigative reporting have earned him countless sources. When a number of those sources began bringing up nanotechnology -- and not in the laudatory language that usually accompanies the topic -- this project was born.

Schneider, whose reporting accomplishments include being first to reveal the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Mont., ultimately spent 15 months delving into nanotech. He interviewed more than 450 scientists, safety advocates and government officials in the U.S. and seven foreign countries. He pored over what he estimates were 15,000 pages of reports and studies.

"The Nanotech Gamble" is the result of that effort. But in a way, it too is just a beginning, as Schneider will continue to dig into this evolving story. Subsequent reports will rest on the key findings from this series, which include the following:
  • Once confined to cutting-edge labs, nanotechnology has an increasingly pervasive place in everyday life -- the National Science Foundation, for instance, estimates that up to $70 billion of nano-containing items are sold in the U.S. each year. But at the same time, a growing body of research is showing that nanomaterials pose significant and potentially fatal health risks, including lung, heart and brain damage, cancer and birth defects. And as Schneider documents, the federal government as a whole is doing little about this emerging threat.
  • The nanomaterial most widely used in consumer products is nano-titanium dioxide. It's an ingredient in a number of drugstore items rubbed onto bodies and faces and put into mouths, among them cosmetics, sunblock and toothpaste. A UCLA study found that ingesting nanotechnology can damage and destroy DNA and chromosomes to a degree that can be linked to "all the big killers of man," as one of the scientists there told Schneider.
  • Carbon nanotubes are the most commonly used nanomaterial in industrial applications. Research shows that they can penetrate the lungs more deeply than asbestos and appear to cause asbestos-like, often-fatal lung damage more quickly, thanks to their tiny size.
  • The Food and Drug Administration, which does not regulate cosmetics or nutritional supplements containing nano-titanium dioxide, says no nano-containing food is sold in this country. But some of the agency's own risk assessors say that's not true, pointing to growing evidence that the particles are already showing up on grocer's shelves in a number of products.
  • Schneider also found a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who has first-hand knowledge of Latin American food packers that dip U.S.-bound produce in a nanocoating to increase its shelf life. "We found no indication that the nanocoating, which is manufactured in Asia, has ever been tested for health effects," the researcher says.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to impose some controls on the use of carbon nanotubes and mandate that any company that uses nanomaterials disclose that practice. But industry interests have pushed back and have so far successfully stymied the implementation of those safeguards.
  • Though the Obama administration argues that it has increased the federal government's investment in nanotech safety efforts, the 2011 budget shows a continued and striking disparity between funding for nanotech development and risk assessment. Just $117 million, or 6.6 percent, of the $18 billion allotted for nanotech overall is for safety-related initiatives.
  • Experts Schneider spoke with expressed alarm at Washington's collective indifference to the potential hazards nanotech presents. These experts fear a repeat of a pattern that played out with breakthroughs such as asbestos, DDT and PCBs, in which government authorities, wary of getting in the way of innovation, ignored the warning signs until a full-blown public health problem was at hand. "How long should the public have to wait before the government takes protective action?" asks one. "Must the bodies stack up first?"
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