Is that keyboard toxic?

Nanotechnology promises countless benefits, but at what risk?

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"We want to look at our technology road map and see what risks there might be with any of the materials we'll use so we can take steps to minimize them," Brady says.

Technology users also have a measure of protection against exposure thanks to the very nature of nanotechnology, Roco and others say.

Nanoparticles are bound with other materials to make a final product, and although data on whether nanoparticles can be released during use or disposal is still being gathered, scientists point to studies that show the nanomaterials stay bound and therefore won't harm humans or the environment.

"These are so tightly locked down that there's no way the nanoparticles can get out. You can beat on them with a hammer, and they still won't get out," Williams says.

In fact, the Toxicological Sciences article "Nanotechnology Safety Concerns Revisited" supports the human ability to cope with nanoparticles, saying, "The available data support the ability of the lung, gastrointestinal tract and skin to act as a significant barrier to the systemic exposure of many nanomaterials. Furthermore, the acute systemic toxicity of many nanomaterials appear to be low."

Moreover, scientists, even those who more aggressively warn about potential risks, point out that nanotechnology promises health and environmental benefits.

Nanotechnology might be used to track tumors, clean up contaminated water and soil, and reduce the need for resources and energy. The potential benefits, they say, are nearly limitless.

As Semiconductor Industry Association spokesman John Greenagel says, "There's no question that we'll find uses for nanotechnology that we'll take for granted 10 or 20 years from now that we can't even think about now."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at

Got something to add? Let us know in the article comments.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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