What is Nanotechnology

By Joel Fuhrman, M.D. www.drfuhrman.com

Caution Advised Regarding Potential Benefits And Risks Of Cutting-Edge Technology!

Nanotechnology is the art and science of manipulating matter at the microscopic level to create new and unique materials and products. The opportunities to do things in new and different ways with nanotechnology have enormous potential to change society.

To fully understand the science of nanotechnology, you must first grasp the concept of how small things can be. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Something the size of a nanometer cannot be seen without a very powerful microscope. Atoms and molecules, the smallest pieces of everything around us, are measured in nanometers. A water molecule is less than one nanometer; a typical germ is about 1000 nanometers. A nanometer is one hundred thousandth the width of a human hair.

At the nanoscale, the physical, chemical, and biological properties of material change in fundamental ways. The downsizing process breaks through a certain barrier; beyond it, the old laws no longer always apply. Carbon becomes 100 times stronger than steel, aluminum turns highly explosive, and gold melts at room temperature.1 Phenomena at the nanometer scale are likely to open up whole new worlds, but currently we cannot always predict how nanoparticles will behave.

As television, airplanes, and computers changed the world in the last century, it is claimed that nanotechnology will have an even more profound effect on the next century. The industry is expected to be worth about $2 trillion by 2014.2 Fortune 500 companies and numerous smaller companies and research institutes are scrambling to secure new market segments and patents.

Unexplored Risks

Although nanotechnology may be the next scientific revolution, experts feel we should proceed with caution when exploiting the unpredictable properties that materials exhibit at the nanoscale. For all of their potential benefits, they also have the potential to do harm.

In the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies recently conducted by the Woodrow Wilson Center, an expert panel agreed that major efforts need to be made to ensure that nanotechnology development incorporates environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risk assessments. To date, only a few EHS studies have been conducted, despite the fact that over 500 consumer products labeled as containing nanotechnology currently are available to consumers. The panel cited the example of zinc or titanium oxide nanoparticles in sunscreen. Nanoscale zinc oxide particles offer the same UVA radiation blocking properties as the traditionally macro-sized sunscreen ingredient, but offer the additional benefit of clear application, saving sun-seekers from the lifeguard “white nose” look. They cautioned, however, that little is known about exposure to nanomaterials.3 The size of nanoparticles is the concern; being 70 times smaller than a red blood cell and close to a DNA molecule in diameter potentially could allow them to penetrate the skin and possibly even elude the immune system to reach the brain. It is unclear whether these nanoparticles have the potential to cause damage at the cellular level. Preliminary investigation into the ability of these nanoparticles to penetrate healthy skin has yielded conflicting results. Studies have shown that broken skin due to shaving wounds, acne, or eczema is an ineffective barrier.4

Institutional Caution

Swiss Re, the world’s largest life and health reinsurer, recently issued a report stating that insufficient research has been done to say with any certainty whether, and, if so, to what extent, nanoparticles or products containing nanoparticles actually pose a threat. They point out fundamental, unanswered questions: How will the changed chemical properties of nanoparticles affect the human body if they are used in concentrated form, as in lotions and sprays? What happens to the accumulated particles that have been detected in some organs?5

Once these materials are washed off the skin or disposed of, there are environmental concerns as well. Little is known about the speed and strength with which nanomaterials may bind to organisms and non-living species in water, soil, and air, as well as their stability over time and potential bioaccumulation in the food chain.

In a review of nanotechnology conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, it was concluded that the results of environmental, health, and safety impacts of nanotechnology are inconclusive, risk assessment protocols have to be further developed, and more research has to be done to assess the potential for hazards from nanomaterials. The report states that although there is some evidence that engineered nanomaterials can have adverse effects on the health of laboratory animals, a lack of well-defined controls in experiments attempting to characterize nanomaterials and their effects and a lack of in vitro and in vivo studies contribute to the ambiguity of available data on health impacts. It goes on to say that addressing the ethical and social impacts of nanotechnology will require an integrated approach involving scientists, engineers, social scientists, toxicologists, policymakers, and the public.6

Safe Sunblocks

Many sunblocks contain nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide to produce a more transparent product. Since there is no requirement that nanoparticle information be included on a product’s list of ingredients, it is difficult to determine which brands to avoid. So we had to search all over the world and test many different sunscreen products before we found one that did not stain clothing, applied easily, and did not contain nanoparticles or any other potentially harmful chemicals. That is why we changed our product line to Lavera. Since these sunblocks do not contain nanoparticles, this controversial issue is not a concern.


1. “Nanotechnology Untold Promise, Unknown Risk 6.” Consumer Reports July 2007.

2. Weiss R. “Nanotechnology Risks Unknown.” www.washingtonpost.com (accessed June 15, 2007).

3. The Wilson Center. “Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.” http://www.nantechproject.org (accessed June 15, 2007).

4. “Nanomaterials, Sunscreens and Cosmetics: Small Ingredients, Big Risks.” Friends of the Earth May 17, 2006.

5. “Nanotechnology: Small matter, many unknowns.” Swiss Re 3-33. May 2004.

6. “A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.” National Academy of Sciences 2006.

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