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Nanotechnology: Life-Changing Innovation or Just Too Good to Be True?

Nanotechnology, while hugely beneficial in many ways, could also cause some devastating health effects.

Nanotechnology poses to be one of the leading technologies in the coming era. As computers advance and try to keep up with Moore's law, as biomedicine works on new innovative solutions, and as industries need smaller and smaller manufacturing capabilities, nanotechnology is the core tech that will aid in all of those endeavors. 

Particles the size of nanometers, though, aren't universally a good thing. In fact, nanoparticles can have negative consequences for humans' health. So much so that even fine particles that are considered safe around humans would probably become harmful when reduced down to nanoparticle size. 

Let's take a look at what exactly nanotechnology is, what positive impact it may have on the world, and then take a look at some negative health effects that might arise from the growth of nanotechnology. 

What is nanotechnology?

The ideas behind nanotechnology date back originally to concepts proposed by physicist Richard Feynman. While speaking at the California Institute of Technology in 1959, he began describing processes that would allow scientists and engineers to control and manipulate singular atoms and molecules. It was in this discussion that Feynman first coined the term "nanotechnology".

It wouldn't be until the early 1980s when scanning microscopes were used to observe individual atoms, let alone the technology to manipulate it.

On a technical scale, nanotechnology can be a little hard to grasp. One nanometer is equivalent to a billionth of a meter. Even that though, is a little hard to grasp, considering just how utterly tiny that size is. For perspective, there are 25.4 million nanometers in one inch, and perhaps even greater perspective, if one standard marble was the size of a nanometer, the earth would be equivalent to just 1 meter in size.

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Nanotechnology is small. Most nanotechnology requires highly powerful microscopes to develop and see, given that the actual structures are the equivalent size of atoms.  

The tools utilized in the nanotechnology space are the scanning tunneling microscope, or STM, and the atomic force microscope, or AFM. It's through these two types of microscopes that much of the nanotechnology sector has formed. 

One interesting fact about the history of nanotechnology is that it's technically been used for thousands of years. Back in the early days of stained glass creation, gold and silver particles were added to the glass mixture to alter the colors of the glass. Little did the glass smiths know at the time, but this addition was actually changing the molecular structure of the glass, not just the color.

What positive effects will nanotechnology have on health?

Nanotechnology and nanoparticles present and unique benefits in the biotechnology sector. Nanotechnology capabilities may allow doctors to image molecules and cellular changes in regular human functions. Nanoparticle dyes and medicines can be used to deliver chemicals to the body right where it is needed the most. 

If you look at our bodies as one giant molecular ecosystem, you can imagine how being able to work on the molecular scale would help doctors achieve more cures and have more medical successes. 

Nanoparticles can be used as a sort of probe inside of humans to examine exactly what is going on inside. They can latch onto specific antibodies or proteins and travel throughout the body, giving doctors a unique perspective on how different biological processes occur.

Much of this is done through imaging of the nanoparticles once in the body. By creating nanoparticles with properties that are visible on different medical imaging techniques, one would theoretically be able to scan a body and track the path of the nanoparticles throughout it. 

Aside from being able to examine specific biological processes in the human body, nanoparticles could also help better distribute medicine throughout the human body without the risk of toxicity to the liver. 

There are also other uses for nanoparticles as well, like gold and silver nanoparticles as part of antifungal creams or medicines. 

Overall, nanotechnology has shown great promise in the biotech space, but are there any negative side effects to these nanometer-sized particles?

What are the potential negative health effects of nanoparticles? 

Exactly what negative effects nanoparticles have on human health largely depends on the exact structure of the nanoparticles themselves. Nanoparticles with low solubility can cause cancer very easily due to the fact that they have more surface area than volume, inherently to their size, which increases the chances for chemical and biological reactiveness inside of humans. 

The negative effects of nanoparticles also depend on how they enter the body, either through ingestion, inhalation, or injection, among a few others. 

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Nanoparticles present in skin and hair products can enter throughout the skin, dermally. Focusing on cosmetic products specifically, they don't require clinical trials but have a very high percentage of nanoparticles in them. Nanoparticles in cosmetics have been linked to a multitude of health problems.

For the most part, the way any given nanoparticle affects any given human isn't predictable or fully known, largely because of how hard it is to study particles of suck size. Many different mechanisms have been proposed to explain the adverse effects of nanoparticles, such as stimulating neurons affecting the central nervous system. Or, triggering inflammatory reactions when they reach circulation. 

All that said, nanoparticles have proven time and time again to be a danger to human health when not monitored closely.

Solutions to mitigate nanoparticle side effects

Scientists working with nanoparticles for their job have the easiest path to safety given that they know what they are working with. Humans shouldn't handle nanoparticles without protection such as masks and gloves and the disposal of nanoparticles needs to be done in a carefully controlled manner. 

Nanoparticles are listed posing serious potential for health complications by the WHO, though the exact size of that risk has yet to be fully studied. 

All of this means that as nanotechnology propagates into standard manufacturing and industrial applications, humans need to handle the technology with an extra sense of precaution and care. Nanotechnology may soon change the world, but we need to take extra steps that they don't also change human health for the worse. 

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