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The big questions

There are a few big questions which need to be addressed when considering the safety of nanomaterials:

  • What is different about the nanomaterial from the substance in its bigger form?
  • What are the implications if it comes into contact with the human body - does it go through the skin or can it be inhaled? How does it behave in the gut and what happens to the particle in the body.
  • What happens to it in the environment - could it cause damage through its use or its release during manufacture, disposal or recycling?
  • Are there safety issues for workers involved in making or researching nanomaterial and how do they need to be protected?
  • Have we got the right tests and tools to test the materials properly?

Doing the tests

In order to find out the answers to these questions scientists and companies need to test the materials first, particularly in the context of how they are being used.

But because nanoparticles are so small we sometimes need new tools to measure and test them, money to pay for these and the skilled scientists and technicians to make it happen. Exactly how this is done and who pays for it is causing lots of arguments among governments, campaigning groups and scientists.

Many people are concerned that products are on the market which may not have been tested appropriately. Although the companies marketing these products explain that they are indeed safe to use, and while there is no reason to doubt them in many cases, there is sufficient concern about our ability to adequately test for materials so small that concern remains.

Companies are being encouraged to be much more transparent about the way they test their products for safety. (see Corporate Responsibility section for more)

But nothing is really safe...

What we have to bear in mind is that nothing is actually 'safe' including the steps leading to your home, your car or the toys your child plays with. The better way to understand the concerns about nanotechnology is the idea of risk.

What is the risk of using nano, in what context and for what purpose - and is it a risk we are prepared to take? So, given the benefit of the product - is it worth it?

For a cancer curing medicine you would probably be prepared to take a risk, or accept certain side effects which you definitely wouldn't want from a food or a
face cream!

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The UK government has funded a project called SAFENANO to help companies and scientists share their research and understand more about what is going on in this very important area.

Go to www.safenano.org for more detail on this subject.

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