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"Hu's study and the Arizona State University study were the two newest studies, and they had the best evidence yet of the foreseeable environmental harms that the commercialization of these nanotechnologies may be having," says George Kimbrell, a lawyer with the International Center for Technology Assessment. Much of the science so far, Kimbrell adds, has focused on the potential good associated with nanosilvers' enhanced mobility and toxicity, barely mentioning that there may be unintended environmental impacts.

"Hu's was one of the first studies that said, ‘Yes, in fact, that happens. Here is this beneficial bacteria that's being affected,'" Kimbrall says.

On the other side of the debate are groups such as the NanoBusiness Alliance. Sean Murdock, the group's executive director, has argued against a rush to regulate in a number of places, most notably the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology.

At a hearing convened earlier this year to discuss the National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendments Act of 2008, Murdock told committee members that America faces stiff global competition in reaping nanotechnology's economic benefits. He urged Congress to develop "a broader understanding of nanotechnology before erecting an extensive new regulatory structure" and to "use the research authorized by this bill as a basis for the decision of what, if any, new regulation is needed."

At this point, neither nanosilver supporters or detractors can count Hu as an ally. "I don't think we have reached that level [of understanding]," he says, when asked for his thoughts on the right regulatory approach. "We have only studied it for about a year. Right now, we just want to raise the public awareness that if nanosilver is generated enormously and enters the wastewater system, it may cause problems. We need to be cautious."

Maynard, too, encourages a calm approach to the nano debate. "I think one of the important things to remember is that there isn't a lot of evidence that nanosilver is toxic," he says, "but there is this [Hu's] evidence of a toxic effect. So I think we've got to take responsible action in response to that. It's not scary information. It's not the end of the world, but it does mean we've got to sit up and take notice."

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