Is that keyboard toxic?

Nanotechnology promises countless benefits, but at what risk?

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"This isn't a technology we want to say no to, but it's a technology we want to move safely and intelligently into the future," says Jennifer Sass, Ph.D., a senior scientist with a specialty in toxicology at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. "What we have to consider with new physical properties is that there's likely to be a new toxicology profile. We have to consider that and do more testing before people are exposed or it's released into the environment."

Toxins at your fingertips

Sass's comments bring us back to that keyboard. Does yours contain nanosilver, a substance that studies suggest can damage part of the human cell that creates cellular energy and induce oxidative stress in people as well as disrupt the nitrogen balance in freshwater ecosystems?

Most likely, you don't know. And you probably can't easily find out. Many products don't disclose -- nor are they required to by law -- that they contain nanomaterials, according to Sass, Davis and other nanotechnology researchers.

What does that mean for a data-entry clerk typing all day? Or for the IT worker setting up desktop systems, handling upgrades or changing cards, all of which may contain either nanomaterials or components containing nanoelectronics?

And what happens when those products need to be replaced? If that computer keyboard is recycled, would that nanosilver be released into the air or water?

"Those are the issues that need to be addressed, and they're just not on the table right now," Davis says.

But others counter that statement. They say that while scientists need to do more research, they already know that a number of factors limit the potential dangers posed by nanotechnology.

One of the most significant factors to consider is the fact that humans evolved in the presence of nanoparticles, says R. Stanley Williams, director of information and the quantum systems laboratory at HP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif.

"People are concerned about manmade nanoparticles in the environment, and there is certainly reason to be careful and not do anything foolish. But on the other hand, human beings aren't the only nanotechnologists on earth. There are thousands of species of animals that synthesize nanoparticles, and our environment is filled with nanoparticles. We just didn't know it until we had tools that could see them," Williams says.

Even so, industry is taking steps to minimize exposure.

Leading manufacturers, whose workers likely face the greatest risk of exposure, follow protocols to contain manufactured nanoparticles as well as any conventional materials fabricated on a nanoscale, says Mihail Roco, senior advisor for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation.

Workers at Intel wear protective gear, use HEPP (high-efficiency pleated polypropylene) filters and work under hoods where air pressure pulls wayward particles away from workers and into filters, says Todd Brady, Intel's corporate environmental manager.

The company, which makes nanoscale transistors for its chips and experiments with nanomaterials, has also teamed with universities and government agencies to explore applications and health and environmental implications arising from nanotechnology.

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