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The Environmental Protection Agency has decided to regulate consumer items that make use of microscopic nanoparticles of silver. It's the first federal rule applied to the new but booming field of nanotechnology and by some accounts it's overdue.

NPR's John Nielsen joins us now here in the studio to talk about the EPA's decision. John, let's start out with a little background. What is nanotechnology and why is it booming?

JOHN NIELSEN: Well, in basic terms, nanotechnology is a field of study that is built around attempts to manufacture and manipulate and make an absolute ton of money off of things called nanoparticles, and those are not, as some would have you believe, little robots waiting to take over the world, but very, very, very small pieces of matter that it's almost hard for me to explain how small they are.

I'll try, however. The smallest nanoparticles are a billionth of a meter wide, and by comparison, the average human hair is about a hundred thousand times that size.

NORRIS: So they are beyond teeny.

NIELSEN: Yeah, itty-bitty, bitty, bitty. The reason this field is booming is because it's not a research field anymore. There are lots of products coming on to the market. The Woodrow Wilson Institute says $32 billion of products, I mean nanoparticles were sold in 2005 alone.

NORRIS: So lots of products, but how are they used?

NIELSEN: Well, it's a huge range of uses, and it's supposed to be getting bigger every day. I was just looking around, trying to gather some of them, and nanoparticles are now being used to build synthetic bones, waterproof slacks, faster-burning rocket fuels and shoe liners that can suck the stench out of the most awful gym shoes. And they're also turning up in a very wide range of household cleaning products, and that's of course where the EPA comes in.

NORRIS: And so why did the EPA get involved in all this?

NIELSEN: Well, the EPA got involved because household cleaning products tend to go down drains and out into waterways. And most of the products we're talking about here, most of the new products, use nanoparticles of silver, and the fact is nobody knows what all those nanoparticles are going to do to the things that live in the waterways or even to the people who drink from the waterways.

And organizations like Friends of the Earth and the Natural Resources Defense Council have been complaining very bitterly about that lack of knowledge, and now the EPA has decided to do something about it. Specifically, they've decided to require manufacturers of products with nanoparticles in them to prove that they are safe before they can be put on the market.

NORRIS: So when will these new regulations take effect?

NIELSEN: Well, I don't know the answer to that, and that's because nobody knows the answer to that. The EPA doesn't know the answer to that because there's a number of steps that haven't been taken yet. First, they have to publish in the federal register. They haven't done that. After that, there could be a whole bunch of public hearings, there could be lawsuits. And if the example of the rule imposed on pesticide companies is illustrative here - the EPA, a long, long time ago asked them to do the same sort of thing with their products - it could take decades because there are a lot of pesticides on the market today that the studies still haven't been done for.

NORRIS: John, as I understand, this is the first time that the EPA has regulated a nanoproduct. Is that correct?

NIELSEN: Yes.

NORRIS: Do you think that we'll see more of these regulations in the future?

NIELSEN: Well, I'm just guessing here, but yes. I can't see how they won't. According to the National Science Foundation, this is going to be a trillion-dollar market in about 10 years, and there are going to be thousands of different nanoparticles on the market. Right now, there are about 200. And the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration are already under a lot of pressure for not paying enough attention to these issues, and so as the market grows, the pressure to pay attention is bound to grow with it.

NORRIS: John Nielsen, talking to us about the new frontier of nanotechnology. Thanks so much, John.

NIELSEN: Thank you.

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