Attempts to Use Nanoparticle-based Dispersant in Gulf Stymied

My open question last month on whether nanotechnology could offer some solutions to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has received a few suggestions on how it could be used and some named products.

However, it seems that one nanoparticle-based solution developed by Stamford, Conn-based Green Earth Technologies has run afoul of a group of scientists  who have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency through a letter not to allow the use of the product as a dispersant in the Gulf.

I suppose it’s not a coincidence that I came to know of the story from a piece written by the investigative journalist, Andrew Schneider. You may recall my review of Mr. Schneider’s work in which I discuss his amplification (shall we call it) of some research that has indicated how some carbon nanotubes mimic the pathogenic effects of asbestos in causing lung damage.

Now please note the research is far from conclusive, is not about all nanoparticles only carbon nanotubes because of their length and at that only involves some carbon nanotubes.

With this in mind, Schneider manages to get a frustrated quote from Dr. Michael Harbut, an occupational medicine specialist who is concerned about the health of clean up workers, who says: “As does asbestos, nanoparticles have been shown to cause an aggressive cancer called mesothelioma,"

No, it hasn’t been shown that it causes mesothelioma. First, the research is only about carbon nanotubes, not nanoparticles. And the research has only shown that some carbon nanotubes can cause the same pathological effects as asbestos, namely because the CNTs are so long the phacocytes are not able to engulf them entirely so in response they release a toxin that doesn’t effect the fiber but harms the surrounding tissue. It ‘s called frustrated phacocytosis.

I really can’t find fault with Dr. Harbut here. Instead Mr. Schneider from his previous work seems to be building a case that nanoaparticles cause cancer so he found someone with a title in front of their name that could provide a quote with the words “cancer” and “nanoparticles” in the same sentence. Again, playing a bit fast and loose with terminology manages to make the story more sensational, but cheats us of getting a better idea of what the real risks are.

Now as to the efficacy or dangers of the dispersant, I have to concur that it has not been tested. But it seems that the studies on the 118 oil-controlling products that have been approved for use by the EPA are lacking in some details as well. These chemicals were approved so long ago in some cases that the EPA has not been able to verify the accuracy of their toxicity data, and so far BP has dropped over a million gallons of this stuff into the Gulf.

I get it, I really do. Let’s determine the toxicity of a product, I’m all for that. But to continue to make all nanoparticles some kind of toxic monolith foisted upon the unsuspecting public by greedy capitalists might build the reputations of investigative journalists but leaves the rest of us out in the cold.

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Nanoclast

IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

 
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