The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a report this summer stating it would begin looking into the need for regulations governing nanotechnology. The agency currently provides no oversight, though the technology is already used in everything from stain-resistant carpeting to sunscreens. Products incorporating the atom-level technology racked up worldwide sales of $30 billion in 2005, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Activist groups have tried to raise awareness by pointing out the still-unknown safety issues surrounding nanotech. One study issued in March has called for a complete “lifecycle assessment,” a cradle-to-grave look at health and environmental impacts. Such a deep, multifaceted examination is slow and laborious, and therefore isn't likely to get a lot of support from investors or tech developers.
The food industry currently has its toe in the water, incorporating nanotechnology mainly in packaging and storage. Some refrigerators and plastic containers, for example, are lined with antimicrobial “nano silvers” to kill bacteria. Given the wealth of possibilities and cost effectiveness, though, nanotechnology will soon make its way into whole foods, according to George Kimbrell, staff attorney with the International Center for Technology Assessment. He said organizations like the ICTA believe governments are the best entities capable of forcibly slowing nanotech's rapid development.
“The question is, why are we rushing like a freight train straight ahead rather than moving cautiously, given the examples of history when it comes to new wonder materials?” he asked.
One answer is money. Worldwide corporate spending on nanotech reached $5.3 billion in 2006, up 19% over the previous year, according to a nanotech consulting firm, Lux Research. Of that amount, U.S. business contributed the most at $1.9 billion.