Nanomaterial safety

When it comes to geological periods of time, our intuitions about how things work cannot be trusted. This is a reflection of the parochial character of many of the heuristic shortcuts in our minds. The same thing applies to the behaviour of objects at a minute scale. For instance, sufficiently tiny machinery is hampered enormously more by friction and surface tension than a larger equivalent would be. Because they have more surface area relative to their volume, they also tend to be much more reactive.

Indeed, asymmetries of behaviour at different scale raise serious concerns about the safety of newly developed nanotechnologies. Just as our brains are calibrated to deal with the kind of experiences that have been normal to human lives for thousands of years, our regulatory procedures are calibrated to respond to known risks like toxicity or corrosiveness.

There have certainly been serious problems that arose from regulation lagging innovation in the past. Think of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, or mesotheliomas caused by chrysotile asbestos. Balancing safety concerns with the desire not to stifle innovation is extremely challenging, especially when the entities with the most sophistication in relation to a new technology are its commercial backers.

In some cases, nanomaterials have almost completely escaped regulation because it has been assumed they behave like their non-nanoscale equivalents. That said, nanoscale titanium dioxide is not the same as a macroscopic bar of the stuff. The same is true for carbon nanotubes, silver nanoparticles, and so forth. Indeed, if the substances were equivalent, there would be no promise in nanotechnology itself. Especially when it comes to the exposure of nanoparticles to human beings (though food, cosmetics, etc), it makes sense for the nano-versions to be regulated as new substances, with the onus on the manufacturers to demonstrate safety.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

4 thoughts on “Nanomaterial safety”

  1. EPA Backs Nanomaterial Safety Research
    Activists Say $4 Million Is Far Too Little for Studies

    By Rick Weiss
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, November 12, 2004; Page A23

    The Environmental Protection Agency has awarded $4 million in grants to study the health and environmental risks posed by manufactured nanomaterials — the new and invisibly tiny materials that are revolutionizing many industries but whose effects on living things remain largely unknown.

    The grants to a dozen universities mark the first significant federal effort to assess the biological and medical implications of nanotechnology, a burgeoning field of science that is expected to become a trillion-dollar industry within the next decade.

  2. Are nanomaterials in any existing consumer products, or is this exclusively a concern for the future?

  3. Many sunscreens contain nano-scale ingredients that raise potential concerns. Micronized and nano-scale zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in sunscreen provide strong UVA protection, and are contained in many of our top-rated products. Repeated studies have found that these ingredients do not penetrate healthy skin, indicating that consumers’ exposures would be minimal. Powder and spray sunscreens with nano-scale ingredients raise greater concerns, since particles might absorb more easily through the lungs than the skin. Studies of other nano-scale materials have raised concerns about their unique, toxic properties. FDA has failed to approve effective UVA filters available in Europe that, if approved here, could replace nano-scale ingredients.

  4. Who knows how these type of chemicals will interact with the human body.
    We will find out in ten or twenty years time if these products are safe or not

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