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Nanotechnology: amazing, but is it safe?

It is amazing that we can now design and manufacture all kinds of useful components and materials at the scale of bacteria or even smaller. Nanotechnology is gradually transforming electronics, communications, materials, medicine, pharmaceuticals, food and agriculture, transport, energy production and storage. Nanotechnology can make things smaller, faster, more efficient, consuming less energy and make new techniques and processes possible.

One nanometre is one billionth (1,000,000,000th) of a metre. Particles of various metals and chemicals with a size of 20 to 100 nanometres have new and useful properties. Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide are already in some transparent sun-blocks where they efficiently block UV radiation but without smearing white cream on your body. Nanotextured surfaces reduce friction and can make skis go faster, enable glass to clean itself and your teeth to fix their own cavities.

Nano-sized therapeutic agents can pass through the body’s natural barriers and target cancer cells at a very early stage. Nanotubes of carbon and other molecules can strengthen steel, and conduct electricity in mobile phones and possibly repair damaged nerve tissue. The possibilities are endless. However, there is a potential snag: are materials of this size safe for the human body, for the workers involved and for the environment?

Ethical Questions

Prof Geoff Hunt, Director of St Mary’s University’s Centre for Bioethics & Emerging Technologies (CBET), and Professional Fellow of the Institute of Nanotechnology, has been a funded partner in European-wide projects to answer this question. As an ethicist and philosopher of science he has been able to pose the difficult questions that physicists, chemists, biologists and other scientists do not always ask or do not even feel equipped to ask. After all, we need to remember that a human cell is about 8,000 nanometres in width, so a 20 nanometre manufactured nanoparticle has no problem penetrating the cell wall and damaging DNA and other cellular structures.

Shouldn’t nanotechnology be developed cooperatively and responsibly with sufficient funds to address safety and equity issues at the early stages? Will developing countries be left behind again? Will some kinds of nanoparticles accumulate in the organs of living creatures, including our overlooked soil bacteria and plankton on which human life ultimately depends? How are the costs, risks and the benefits of nanotechnology assessed? Are current risk assessment models up to the task? Do consumers have a right to know that nanoparticles are now entering the food chain through food and drink, food packaging and new agricultural products? Should nanotechnology consumer products be labelled as containing nanoparticles?

These are some of the questions posed in the pioneering book by Prof Hunt and a Canadian colleague Michael Mehta, Nanotechnology: Risk, Ethics & Law (Earthscan).

European Projects

Since 2008 CBET has been a funded partner in the European Framework Programme (FP7) project NanoImpactNet on the ‘Health Impacts of Nanoparticles’; in the FP7 project NaPolyNet on ‘Setting up research-intensive clusters across the EU on characterization of polymer nanostructures’; in a European Cooperation in Science & Technology (COST) project on ‘Eco-sustainable food packaging based on polymer nanomaterials’; and in a project to development an ISO international standard for the labelling of products containing nanomaterials.

In 2010 CBET hosted at St Mary’s University a joint European conference of NaPolyNet and COST on polymer nanomaterials for food packaging, attended by delegates from over 20 countries.

Prof Geoff Hunt says, “As an ethicist in nanotechnology, I am extremely proud to have initiated and led a major international project to get the labelling of products containing nanoparticles recognised and finally published as a technical standard of the International Organization for Standardisation (ISO). But more needs to be done to bring this concept into an enforceable European and international regulation.”

What’s Next?

Prof Hunt and his team are now engaged with their European partners in seeking major funding for a project to coordinate expertise on the irradiation of food through nano-manufactured polymer packaging. Again this technology could have enormous benefits, but the risks must be explored.

Did you know?

Nanotechnology is not entirely new. In medieval times the makers of stained glass for church windows used to vaporise gold into nanoparticles, thereby changing its colour to red in the glass.