Why You Shouldn’t Be Too Afraid of Nanotechnology

What's to come?
May 20 2014 11:35 AM

Small Packages

A new case study on the health risks of nanotech doesn’t tell the whole story.

Nanoparticles
Nanoparticles of copper zinc tin sulfide create a solar cell.

Image courtesy Oregon State University

The potential dangers of nanotechnology have been capturing imaginations for some years now—and for good reason. The technology is getting researchers closer to designing and engineering materials atom by atom. And it’s allowing them to tap into material properties that, until recently, were either unknown, or mere intellectual curiosities. Chances are that the device you’re reading this on does what it does because of nanotechnology. Batteries, computer chips, digital memory, display screens, all perform better now because they use engineered nanoscale materials. And this is just the beginning. The sometimes-unusual properties of materials engineered at this exquisitely fine scale can now be found in new drugs, medical implants, super-lightweight materials, cheap and efficient solar cells, cars, clothing, cosmetics, food packaging—almost everywhere you look, someone is either using nanotechnology or thinking about how they can use it to make the products you use and rely on cheaper, more efficient, and more effective.

But the unusual properties that are making all this possible are raising alarm bells with people who worry about what can go wrong with new technologies. What happens, they ask, when these nanomaterials and products get into the environment, or into our bodies? Can the cool things they are designed to do also be harmful if they end up in the wrong place? It’s a compelling question: History is littered with great technologies that also had an unexpected downside—just look at some of the health and environmental challenges that plastics are creating, for instance.  It’s also especially pertinent to the nanoscale, where particles too small to see with the naked eye can potentially throw a nanowrench into the nanoworld of biology. This is not idle speculation—there’s a growing body of research that shows some nanoscopically small particles can cause harm in unexpected ways if they get into your body or out into the environment.

A few days ago, these concerns were brought to the fore with the publication of a case report in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. The report describes a chemist who developed symptoms that included throat irritation, nasal congestion, facial flushing, and skin reactions to jewelry containing nickel, after starting to work with a powder consisting of nanometer-sized nickel particles. According to the report’s lead author, this is “case one in our modern economy” of exposure to a product of nanotechnology leading to an individual becoming ill.

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Although there have been other instances where engineered nanoparticles have been suspected of causing ill health, this is the first where the link seems credible. But beyond indicating that working with a fine nickel powder without any form of protection probably isn’t a good idea, does this case help better understand the risks of nanotechnology?

In the grand scheme of things, probably not—although as an indicator of what not to do, it is important. For more than a decade now, there has been a massive global investment in research into the health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials. Between 2004 and 2013 more than 6,000 academic papers were published on how these materials possibly cause harm, and how it might be averted. And for decades before this, researchers were studying the health impacts of nanoscale particles arising from natural processes, and as by-products of industrial processes. As a result, we now know quite a lot about how nanoscale materials behave in the human body and how to reduce the chances of harm occurring. We know, for instance, that inhaled or injected nanoparticles can get to places in the body that larger particles cannot go; that the surface of nanoparticles is important in determining how harmful they are; and that nanoparticles are sometimes less harmful than the chemicals they’re made of. We also know that our bodies have evolved over millennia to handle nanoparticles, and that fine particles are integral to many biological and environmental systems. These studies have also indicated how much we don’t know, which is why research in this area remains a priority. And one area we know less about than many would like is: How dangerous is the stuff people are actually exposed to, as opposed to the pure materials that researchers often use in their studies?

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