Nanotechnology Comes Under Scrutiny and Nobody Is the Wiser

Between conspiracy theories and bitter defenses against their charges we don't seem to be getting anywhere in assessing the risk of nanoparticles


So what happens when a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist trains his focus on how government (in this case, the US government) is responding to concerns about the risk of nanoparticles? Well, you get posturing.

Andrew Schneider wrote a series of stories for AOL News with the title “The Nanotech Gamble”. You can guess where this investigation is headed, right?

That’s right. We get hyperbole that borders on the misleading, or shall we say: wrong. For example, as noted over at the blog Frogheart, Schneider makes the statement in one of his articles from his investigative series that “…the NIOSH team discovered that beyond the well-documented lung damage that comes from inhalation of carbon nanotubes…”.

Now we could quibble and speculate about what Schneider meant by the adjective “well-documented” but at least one clear implication is that many studies have shown that carbon nanotubes cause lung damage. Now as far as I know, and Mr. Schneider or anyone sympathetic to his views should feel free to show me otherwise, there has been one study that links carbon nanotubes to lung damage.

While the research was done by one of the most eminent nanotechnology and toxicology experts in the world, and showed how the length of carbon nanotubes caused the same pathogenic effects as asbestos, there were some rather big gaps in that study. The study provided no data on key toxicological elements such as dose or exposure. To get more perspective on the study, I refer you to Richard Jones’ analysis of the study that came out at the time of its publication.

Not only is this study inconclusive in some important areas on determining whether carbon nanotubes damage your lungs, but it is also hardly a tidal wave of studies that would constitute a description like “well-documented”.

As shocking as this may sound, the reputation of Pulitzer Prize winning journalists is rarely built on balanced explanations but often are more about “blowing the lid off” of some human endeavor by exposing some scandal, whether it be real or merely implied.

So, what is the response? I am afraid the response has been somewhat ham-handed. Andrew Maynard over at his 20/20 Blog has a pretty thorough review of the whole imbroglio. Apparently, Schneider’s piece triggered Clayton Teague, Director of the US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) to write a response on the pages of AOL News.

But it didn’t end there. So stinging was the piece to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and the NNCO that they felt compelled to circulate a set of talking points to participants at a recent public forum on nanotechnology that attempted to refute many of Schneider’s points. Here’s are the talking points circulated by the federal government to participants at the March 30-31 NNI Capstone meeting on March 26 and as provided in Maynard’s blog:

  • AOL Web site is running a three-day series on nanotechnology by a reporter who has spent months reporting the story, including interviews with many agency scientists.
  • Takes an alarmist perspective: Despite the lack of evidence that anyone has ever been harmed by an engineered nano product, it presumes that nanotechnology (wrongly construed to be a singular entity) is inherently dangerous until proven safe, ignoring reality that nanotech encompasses an enormous range of materials and products whose risk—if any—depends on where and how they are made and used.
  • Uses irrelevant examples, for example: Cites a study finding DNA damage in mice fed nano-TiO2 (used in paint and sunscreens), but no studies have shown a convincing link between this widely used chemical and human illness and the story does not mention (but we have checked and learned) that exposures in the study were more than 10 times those allowed in food by FDA regs.
  • Claims that “most federal agencies “are doing little to nothing to ensure public safety” and are “ignoring warning signs.” Truth is the U.S. is the global leader in research into nanotech’s potential environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks.
    • Between FY 2005 and FY 2009 the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) will have invested $254 million in research whose primary function is to understand EHS issues—more than all other countries in the world combined. And that does not count the large amounts of research that contribute to health and safety knowledge indirectly, such as basic research on how to measure the stuff in the first place.
    • Federal research dedicated to nano-related EHS research has grown substantially from $34.8 million in FY 2005 to $74.5 million in FY 2009 and an estimated $91.6 million for FY 2010. The FY 2011 request is a record $116.9 million.
  • Risk must be balanced against benefits, and the essentially theoretical risk that has so far been identified should be balanced against the benefits in terms of sophisticated products and economic growth and jobs created by this expanding industry.
  • Just yesterday (Thurs) PCAST released its report on the National Nanotechnology Initiative—the 10-year-old, multi-agency initiative that has supported this fledgling science of the extremely small to the tune of about $12 billion over the past decade—finding that the U.S. is the global leader in nanotech by any number of measures (including patent filings, scientific journal citations, and investments in R&D).  This is a young and promising industry we can still own as a Nation, so we should not let fear overtake common sense, even as safety studies and regulatory updates continue.

Whether the circulation of these talking points crossed some line, I am not going to debate here (although I am beginning to have that discussion on Maynard’s website). Instead I would prefer to point out how remarkably unhelpful all of this is towards addressing the risk issues of nanoparticles.

It seems that despite governments funneling funds towards toxicological studies and risk assessments of nanoparticles all we seem to get are endless catalogues of what we know and what we don’t know and little in the shape of lab research.

Thanks to TNTLog I now understand that this isn’t  just some perceived notion of mine but is actually the only way that toxicologists can respond given the level of funding. As TNTLog notes:

“When toxicologists ask for a global well funded long term study to allow the modeling of the interaction of various categories of nanomaterials with the environment, the funding agencies can only manage rustle up a few hundred thousand euros for a two or three year project. That gets you nowhere in understanding a new and rapidly emerging class of materials, so we just end up paying great scientists to sit on their backsides and browse the web for a few years.”

So, let’s set aside all the conspiracy theories of a complicit government in cahoots with big business to poison us with nanoparticles or on the other side empty counter arguments about how much is being spent on the research when everyone knows it’s not enough to get this all sorted out. Let’s get it done already.

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