May 17, 2006


Citing research suggesting that some invisibly small engineered nanoparticles might pose health risks, a coalition of consumer and environmental groups petitioned the Food and Drug Administration yesterday to beef up its regulation of nanoparticle-containing sunscreens and cosmetics and recall some products.

The legal filing was synchronized with the release of a report by the environmental group Friends of the Earth that highlighted the growing number of personal care products with nanoingredients, defined as smaller than 100-millionths of a millimeter.

I'm agnostic on whether this is a good idea, but I think it underscores -- as I've noted before -- the unwisdom of the industry's strategy a few years back of identifying nanotechnology with this kind of stuff instead of with the more "spooky" advanced possibilities.

UPDATE: Steven Den Beste notes a math error that I shouldn't have missed, but did:

Lemme see: 1/100 million == 10^-8. A millimeter is 10^-3 meter. Multiply them together and you get 10^-11 meter. So they're talking about banning particles smaller than 10 picometers.

The smallest atom is helium, which is 280 picometers in diameter. The only things smaller are elemental particles such as protons, neutrons, and electrons. I guess we have to ban everything made out of them, right?

It would be interesting to know if this is the Wapo's mistake, or if Friends of the Earth really are that clueless. I wouldn't want to bet either way.

Jeez, I read that as 100-millionths of a meter, not a millimeter, and so it's hard for me to blame the Post. But it seems like a mistake that's easier to miss than to make in the first place.

UPDATE: Reader Josh Mandir says the problem isn't math, but English:

I went through the same calculation that Steven Den Beste did and basically came up with the same answer and was ready ro ridicule the math error myself, but I realized that they probably mean 100 units of 1 millionth of a millimeter. One millionth of a millimeter is a nanometer, 100 of those is 100 nanometers. And 100 nanometers seems to be about the upper limit of what you could reasonably call something nano in science.