updated 7/29/2004 7:48:59 PM ET 2004-07-29T23:48:59

Substances made using nanotechnology should be considered new chemicals and undergo extra safety checks before they hit the market to ensure they do not pose a threat to human health, experts said Thursday.

In a report commissioned by the British government, a panel of scientists, engineers, ethicists and other experts identified major opportunities and hazards that are likely to arise as nanotechnology, the science of manipulating matter at the molecular level, comes of age.

The analysis, conducted by the Royal Society of Engineers and the Royal Society, Britain's academy of scientists, is the first of its kind.

Nanotechnology involves manipulating matter smaller than 100 nanometers and taking advantages of properties that are present only at that level, such as conductivity. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or about one-millionth the size of a pin head. The prefix comes from "nanos," the Greek word for dwarf.

Nanotech has been around for several decades, but only now is its potential starting to be realized. Products already in existence that incorporate nanotech include computer chips, stain-resistant trousers, DVD players, anti-glare windows and sunscreens.

The future of nanotechnology promises stronger and lighter materials for a plethora of products, from better mobile phones and devices that check the freshness of food to substances that clean up contaminated land and make seawater drinkable.

Medicine is expected to be one of the fields to benefit most from the technology.

Experts have roundly dismissed as exaggeration earlier predictions that it will cure cancer. But more precisely targeted drugs and surgery, less toxic chemotherapy and implants to allow the deaf to hear or the blind to see are within reach, the scientists reported.

Reality check
While dampening hype over the promise of nanotechnology, the report also provided a reality check on doom scenarios, such as those involving rogue nano robots being able to breed and ruin the planet.

"It sounds like science fiction, and I'm happy to say that it is science fiction. It is not an issue and we can put it aside and move on to issues that really do deserve attention," said Anthony Seaton, panel member and emeritus professor of environmental and occupational medicine at University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Most areas of nanotechnology present no new health or safety risks, said Ann Dowling, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cambridge University who chaired the panel. But she said that where particles are concerned, size really does matter.

"Nanoparticles can behave quite differently from larger particles of the same material and this can be exploited in a number of exciting ways. But it is vital that we determine both the positive and the negative effects they might have."

The biggest concern cited in the report is that free-roaming nanoparticles or nanotubes, ultra small pieces of material, could be inhaled, absorbed through the skin or build up in the environment.

People already breathe in millions of nanoparticles a day, but the point is whether the chemicals the particles are made of are harmful. Those most at risk would be people manufacturing products that contain nanoparticles, the scientists said

There is evidence that at least some manufactured nanoparticles are more toxic than the same chemicals in larger form, Dowling said.

The report recommends that nanoparticles and nanotubes be treated as new chemicals under British and European law and be approved separately from chemicals in larger form. Meanwhile, research should start now to investigate the effects of nanoparticles on human and environmental health, the report advises.

Public discussion needed
Societies must start to discuss the merits and hazards now, while the technology is still in its infancy, the scientists said.

"It is sufficiently early to inform decisions being made, before deeply entrenched or polarized positions appear," Dowling said.

Experts from the Foresight Institute, a nonprofit organization aiming to help prepare society for anticipated advanced technologies, gave the report a mixed review.

While it deftly addresses the concern over the safety of free-roaming nanoparticles, the evaluation almost completely overlooks the promise of so-called molecular manufacturing, said Christine Peterson, president of the institute, based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Today's manufacturing is "top-down," where large materials are made smaller. Molecular manufacturing will be "bottom-up," building larger structures by bringing together tiny molecules to make the precise arrangements we want, Peterson noted.

"This coming style of manufacture ... receives only brief attention. An entire body of (U.S.) technical literature on molecularly precise, bottom-up nanomanufacturing is omitted," Peterson said.

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