11/22/2010 05:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nanoparticles: Friend or Foe? Help Us Investigate

They are small and unregulated and in more than 800 products from socks to sunscreen to Superfund sites, and we want to know more about them.

But we need your help.

The Faster Times has launched its second innovative "Reader Investigation" into nanotechnology and nanoparticles.

The Columbia Journalism Review has called our collaboration between the crowd and an experienced journalist "an open-source investigation unfettered by newsroom walls," and our first investigation into generic and private label food - driven by reader tips, comments and e-mails - led to a deep look at the purchasing practices of Trader Joe's, a grassroots effort to track suspect organic beef, and, finally, a consumer guide to generic and private label brands.

Now Amy Westervelt, our Earth Science writer and an associate editor, wants your help in exploring the unregulated world of nanoparticles. From her intro post:

But first of all, what is nanotechnology? It's one of those catch-all terms that refers to an extremely broad branch of science in which physicists study and then attempt to control matter on an atomic or molecular scale. Generally nanotech involves dealing with structures that are 100 nanometers or smaller, and producing materials that are of a similar size...

But you're not likely to see "nanosilver" anywhere on those packages of tube socks at CostCo. Because nanosilver is not a new chemical or ingredient-it's a smaller version of an existing, and already regulated, particle-there's nothing that requires companies to list the inclusion of the chemical on their packaging.

Yep, that's right. There is absolutely no regulation of nanoparticles. When I first read that fact, I thought it must be hyperbole. But, although there are (thankfully) plenty of researchers studying how nanoparticles behave, no one seems to regulate them. The EPA is allowed to regulate new commercial chemicals before they enter the market, but under the Toxic Substances Control Act most nanomaterials don't qualify as new materials.

Amy has also reported on a new Friends of the Earth report that calls nanotechnology more foe than friend:

In essence the report accused the nanotechnology industry of greenwashing. While nanoparticles could be helpful in the advancement of renewable energy, they're most often being used by the petrochemical industry to find more oil and create more chemicals. Moreover, any manufacturing process making use of nanoparticles requires a large amount of energy. So no matter what the result, the process itself is energy-intensive.

So come on by with your tips or questions. Let's see what we can find out together.