Over a couple of days in London last summer, I found myself mulling over a very similar question with a small group of colleagues. We were a pretty eclectic group—engineers, designers, toxicologists, business leaders, academics, policy wonks—but we had one thing in common: We wanted get a better handle on how dangerous realistic products of nanotechnology might be, and how these dangers might be avoided.
Unfortunately, the pristine engineered nanomaterials that toxicologists like to work with don’t reveal much about what happens in the real world—for instance, after those materials have been put into your smartphone and you’ve handled it with greasy fingers, held it to your face, dropped it, had the shattered screen mended, and eventually disposed of it. Our approach was to imagine products based on engineered nanomaterials that were technologically feasible and would also have a reasonable chance of surviving a cut-throat economy—products like active food packaging labels that indicated the presence of contaminants; helium-filled balloons with solar cell skins; and materials templated from viruses to generate hydrogen and oxygen from water. We then tried to imagine how these plausible products could potentially release dangerous materials into the environment.
To our surprise, we struggled to come up with scenarios that scared us.
What we discovered was that placing technological and economic constraints on the products we imagined reduced the chances of exposure to especially harmful materials. In part, this was due to the knowledge we already have on the safe use of engineered nanomaterials. But it was also because, technologically wonderful as engineered nanomaterials are, many of them don’t seem as worrisome as imagined when seen in the cold light of commercial reality.
We also found that, for many new materials, good production and use practices go a long way to reducing the chances of harmful exposures. And this is why the case of the nickel nanoparticles above needs to be approached with some caution. Many people have an allergic skin reaction to nickel, and research has shown that inhaling nickel particles can cause people to become sensitized to the metal. It’s also well known that fine powders will become airborne more easily than coarse ones when they’re handled, and that the finer the powder you inhale, the more potent it is in your lungs. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that handling nickel nanopowder in an open lab without exposure controls is not a great idea. In other words, the reported incident was more a case of bad exposure management than nanoparticle risk.
That said, the case does highlight the level of respect with which any new or unusual material should be treated. This was also one of the conclusions from those two days in London. Just because the risks of many nanotechnology products seem relatively small, doesn’t mean that we can afford to be complacent. There’s still the possibility that someone will create a particularly dangerous new material, or will use a material that seems safe in a dangerous way. As a society we need to be vigilant when it comes to advanced materials, whether they are branded with the nano insignia or not. We need to continue investing in the science that will inform the safe development and use of new materials, and to apply every ounce of understanding we currently have to preventing them from causing harm. So far though, with one or two notable exceptions (I wouldn’t advocate inhaling carbon nanotubes for instance), there are surprisingly few in-your-face risk red flags when engineered nanomaterials are developed and used responsibly. That’s good news for nanotechnology safety. But it will only stay good as long as the state of the science on potential risks of new materials keeps pace with materials themselves.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.