Earlier this month in a blog entry in which I bemoaned the rather polemical tone of the debate on nanotechnology and its environmental, health and safety (EHS) issues I referenced an article where the author was getting a little fed up with all this talk about the threat of nanotechnology on our health when there was not one example of anyone being harmed by nanotech.Unfortunately, no sooner did he speak than the first example of that harm was chronicled in a new study. The European study has linked seven cases of lung disease in China to working with nanoparticles in which two of the cases resulted in death.
Andrew Maynard on his 20/20 Science blog has done a thorough job of analyzing this report and what its ramifications may be for nanotech, so I haven’t much to add.
But I would like to highlight a point Maynard makes that may be missed by some alarmists and shouldn’t be:
At the end of the day, the study says little about the potential hazards of nanoparticles in general, and next to nothing about the possible dangers of nanotechnology. If the sad deaths of the two workers and the lung disease of their five colleagues were used to press home a preordained nanotechnology agenda, it would amount to little more than a cynical misuse of the data—not a move that is likely to encourage evidence-based decisions on either workplace safety or safe nanotechnology.
As well as his balancing thoughts:
Yet to dismiss the study as flawed and irrelevant would be equally foolish. The reality is that two workers died and nanoparticles were implicated, at a time when increasing numbers of nanoparticle-containing products are entering the market. As the details of the study become known, people are going to want to know what the findings mean for them—whether there are risks associated with emerging nanotechnologies, and what government and industry are doing about it. If nanotech-promoters downplay or even discredit the work, the move is more likely to engender suspicion than allay fears in many quarters. And once again, evidence-based decision-making will be in danger of being sacrificed in favor of maintaining a set agenda.
I am not so sure either side of the EHS/nanotechnology debate will be as balanced in its approach to this issue as Andrew Maynard, but I am hoping they will.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.