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Nanoparticles are little things, but may be big problems for health and environment

By Paul Wallis     Nov 12, 2008 in Science
The current concern about nanomaterials isn’t pure scare mongering. It’s worse. It’s a real scientific doubt. The problem is that nobody’s too sure what the materials are going to do over time. The hazards aren’t clear, or anything like clear.
This lack of information and lack of ground rules has been exacerbated by the fact that government, as usual, is way behind. Rip Van Regulator has been on the ball at the customary comatose speeds.
Releasing what are effectively unknown nano agents into the consumerverse and the environment isn’t likely to be fun, if nobody knows how to deal with these agents in the field.
Think Chernobyl, where you don’t even know the risks of radiation, or that there’s such a thing as radiation.
The BBC:
Urgent regulatory action is needed on nano-scale materials widely used in industry, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has concluded.
The materials have so far shown no evidence of harm to people or the environment, the commission found.
But, it warned, there was a "major gap" in research and it would not recommend clothes with nanoscale silver.
Neither would anyone else with a brain. The silver is there to microbe-proof the clothes, but it could also kill of a lot of useful microbes, because it washes off, and enters the water table, rivers, and oceans. Without microbes, there would be no life on Earth. Imagine Chinese scale production of masses of nanosilver entering the environment. Maybe millions of tons, and all toxic to practically anything.
Just to liven things up, nano particles also behave quite differently, at that size. So the question is literally what they can do. Carbon nano fibres penetrating tissue is another fascinating, if not cheerful, subject.
Meanwhile, the science, being commercially driven, has got itself unbalanced:
But, the commission noted, the potential benefits of nanomaterials meant that the rise in their use had far outstripped the knowledge of the risks they might pose.
A recent survey for the Washington DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center found more than 600 consumer products that listed nanomaterials among their ingredients, and the number of patents for nanomaterials' use was in the thousands annually.
But the materials' novelty meant that long-term effects could not yet be studied, and their limited use to date precluded studies on their build-up in the environment.
Exactly like the genetically modified food and other new bio products, nano is now suffering from a lack of information at the same time that information is most needed, for proper study. Also like bio products, the huge possible range of studies simply cannot be done in the sort of frantic time frames created by commercial products.
Anything can be produced, OK’d on current knowledge, or lack of known threats, and be a disaster 50 years later, like DDT.
The difference now is that testing capacities are thousands of times more advanced. It is possible to run very thorough testing on a lot of the subjects, particularly consumer issues. So there aren’t many good arguments for not testing and not conducting research. It just isn’t being done.
Far more importantly, this UK report and the US report are obviously trying hard to pin down problems and explain them properly. Administratively, this is like writing a kids' primer for governments, How To Know When There's A Possible Global Disaster Likely To Happen In The Next 20 Seconds.
The world does not actually need mass produced toxins able to exterminate the food chain. We already have TV and mainstream media, let's not be greedy.
I don’t subscribe to the doomsday scenario for nano materials, where they go nuts and destroy the world. That they could do a lot of damage, very quickly, however, isn’t in doubt. In the current state of technology, they’re not controllable.
One very nasty analogy has been made between carbon nano fibres, the most common, and of all things, asbestos. If so, the risks are unacceptable. A version of silicosis, the destructive particle based killer disease, is also a possibility, if this is the case.
The UK commission doesn’t want to ban nano materials, it want risks identified and reporting made mandatory, not voluntary, as it is at the moment.
I’m inclined to think, from the wording, that someone is going to great lengths to make sure the big issues are clear.
Just as well, because if these issues aren’t clear, the problems will be.
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