Is That Keyboard Toxic?

Warning: Your keyboard could be a danger to you and the environment.

Sound preposterous? Then consider this: Some keyboards contain nanosilver, which, because of its antimicrobial properties, is increasingly being incorporated into everyday items even though studies have questioned its health and environmental safety.

Studies are raising concerns about the proliferation of nanotechnology, which can be found in numerous products, from IT components to cosmetics.

"The biggest issue around nanotechnology is that we don't know [all of its risks]. We're putting things on the market that haven't been fully tested," says Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), a San Jose-based advocacy group.

Nanotechnology refers to work done on the nanoscale; 1 nanometer equals a billionth of a meter, or about 1/100,000 the thickness of a sheet of paper.

Use of this technology can save resources and energy. Moreover, nanomaterials offer potential benefits that could revolutionize our world. For example, they could be used to track tumors or clean up contaminated water and soil.

But scientific studies have also found potential health and environmental problems with nanomaterials.

"The nanotech boom is generating an unprecedented number of new processes and materials that pose unknown potential environmental and health hazards," the SVTC stated in its April 2008 report on nanotechnology and its risks.

And research published in the May issue of Nature Nanotechnology suggests that carbon nanotubes, which researchers are using to build next-generation circuits, could be as harmful as asbestos.

"We have to consider with new physical properties that there's likely to be a new toxicology profile and do more testing before people are exposed," says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York who specializes in toxicology.

Sass' comments bring us back to that keyboard. Does yours contain nanosilver, which studies suggest may damage human cells as well as disrupt the nitrogen balance in freshwater ecosystems? Most likely, you don't know. And you probably can't easily find out because manufacturers aren't required to note that products contain nanomaterials.

The good news, however, is that a number of factors limit the potential dangers posed by nanotechnology. One of the most significant is that humans evolved in the presence of nanoparticles, says R. Stanley Williams, director of information and the quantum systems laboratory at HP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif.

"There is certainly reason to be careful," he says. "But our environment is filled with nanoparticles. We just didn't know it until we had tools that could see them."

Even so, industry is taking steps to minimize exposure. Leading manufacturers follow protocols to contain manufactured nanoparticles, says Mihail Roco, senior adviser for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation.

For example, workers at Intel Corp. wear protective gear, use HEPP (high-efficiency pleated polypropylene) filters and work under hoods, where air pressure pulls wayward particles away from them and into filters, says Todd Brady, Intel's corporate environmental manager.

Technology users also have a measure of protection against exposure thanks to the very nature of nanotechnology. Nanoparticles are bound with other materials to make final products, and studies show that 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," Williams says. "You can beat on them with a hammer, and they still won't get out."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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