This post was first published on Dec. 6, 2013, on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog. It was updated on Oct. 14, 2014 (see below).
Guleed Ali pauses to study his notebook, standing on a steep slope covered in gray volcanic ash and desert brush, high above the present-day shore of Mono Lake in eastern California. He looks across the slope to where, a few hundred yards away, a gash of lighter gray sediment cuts across the hill, then disappears. The exposed sediment is history: A record of deposits left by Mono Lake when it stood far higher than today.
Ali picks a spot, hefts his shovel and begins clawing into the slope, raising puffs of dust, searching for a missing page in that sediment history: something higher upslope, evidence of the stream that would have fed the prehistoric lake: a layer of gravel. He finds only sand – perhaps an ancient beach. He moves across the slope, lifts and plunges his shovel back into the soft hillside.
By studying stream bed sediments, Guleed Ali tries to build a history of how water levels have changed at Mono Lake. Photo: D. Funkhouser
He is digging for dates, looking back tens of thousands of years into the last ice age: When was the lake higher? When did it shrink, and grow again? How does that chronology correspond with the advance and retreat of the massive ice sheets that covered much of North America? And how did the lake’s levels respond to changing climate?
Understanding that past will help scientists like Ali, a PhD student at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, project what might happen in the future as the world warms up. This is no esoteric question for Los Angeles, whose nearly 4 million people depend in part on Mono Lake’s watershed for drinking water, green lawns, agriculture and industry.
When Wisconsin lawmaker Terese Berceau first learned about nanomaterials a few years ago, she found there were many nano-based products on the market, but little research into their possible health effects. “The horse was already out of the barn,” she said, but she found it hard to get anyone interested. “It is a difficult subject to get people feeling that, ‘Geez, we should do something now.’ ”
But she worked at it, and her concern has paid off. The Wisconsin legislature just set up a study committee to gather information about nanotechnology and consider the policy implications. Berceau hopes that will lead to a registry, so health and environmental officials can track how the materials are being used, and how manufacturers and researchers are disposing of them.
Wisconsin is one of the first states to undertake this effort. Nano-enhanced consumer, environmental and health products have spawned a red-hot industry. Across the country, the use of nanomaterials—substances manufactured on a tiny scale, measured in billionths of a meter—is largely unmonitored and unregulated. Nanotechnology manipulates matter on a near-atomic scale in order to develop nanomaterials with surprising new properties, such as strength and super-conductivity. The results have ranged from super-strong sunscreen and bicycle frames to life-saving drugs.
“If we’ve learned anything from the BP oil spill [in the Gulf of Mexico], it’s that you should have a plan, that you shouldn’t just hope that nothing bad happens. You should have a plan so you don’t have serious consequences for public or environmental health,” Berceau said.
By David Funkhouser — June 23, 2010
Nanotechnology may be an “emerging” science, but we’re already slathering its products on our skin, wearing them to go hiking and ingesting them in medicines and food. With more than 1,000 consumer items using nanomaterials already out there, a new California study urges government to take action to find out which ones might be dangerous and start getting them under control.
“We must determine the toxicity of molecules and nano particles before the public and workforce are exposed; otherwise citizens become experimental subjects,” said Carl Cranor, a professor at the University of California at Riverside and a member of the study’s science advisory panel.
The report, prepared by the University of California/San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, recommends that state agencies try to speed up the regulatory process, and look at whether they can act under existing policies to put curbs on some materials, rather than waiting for new legislation.