NANO – BOO! Be afraid, be very afraid

This blog is on how some people try to raise fear about things nano.  The title of this blog is inspired by Karl Schwarz in a response to a line of comments on a report titled: “Carcinogenic Evidence Against Nanotubes Continues to Mount” that are currently ongoing in the Nanotechnology Zone LinkedIn group.  He called this “another Nano-Boo report”.

The article was a blog by Paul Whytock published by electonicdesign.com.  Paul’s article started with the statement that carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are now potentially carcinogenic and pointed to research involving 7 people exposed to the dust cloud from the World Trade Center tragedy.  Three of these seven were found to have absorbed CNTs.  (There was no comment on whether they had ill effects from the CNT exposure or from the exposure to all the materials in the dust.).  He raises the question that this heightens health concerns and also why CNTs were found in the dust.  To further the idea that CNTs are dangerous, he points out that available information shows that under some circumstances, nanotubes can cross membrane barriers and goes on to mention a rodent study that produced an asbestos-like effort from CNTs that produced inflammation and formation of lesions.  What was not mentioned is that in the Florida study, the researchers created extra long CNTs (greater than 20 micrometer), bundled a number of them together, and insert a large quantity of these packages.  A sufficient quantity of any material can be dangerous.  There was a case of a Florida woman who died from drinking water.  It happened to be that she was drinking 8 gallons of water a day and destroyed her electrolyte balance.

He adds some additional research that has produced similar lesions and the fact that the body’s immune system was unable to engulf fibers that reach beyond 20 micrometers.  This is significantly longer than the typical 2.5 to 5 micrometers of CNTs.  There are recommendations that CNTs be considered the same as asbestos because they are both mainly thin, long pointed materials.  Consequently, the research that is being done is directed at proving the outcome by setting the experimental conditions in a manner that the outcome that was postulated will happen.

The choice of words for the title are very informative.  The author has a previous article/blog (2011) titled “Will Nanotubes Become The New Asbestos?”  So he is trying to make a point, which he has previously pronounced in trying to get people concerned.  There are also statements that companies do not care about the impact of CNTs or nanomaterials on people or the environment.  It is possible that this is true in England where Paul Whytock lives, but I doubt it.  In the U.S., the companies that I interface with have safety programs that begin with an initial health screening (a baseline) and have continual training and monitoring to ensure worker health and safety.  The OSHA training course developed by Rice University and Texas State University address worker nanotechnology safety training.  There is currently a national Science Foundation funded program at Texas State and the University of Texas at Tyler that has produced two courses in Nanotechnology Safety education.  Topic modules from these courses are also being presented in a number of other courses to broaden the students’ exposure to the need for appropriate precautions in handling nanomaterials.  This does not fit the definition of people “not caring”.

The remaining question from the article is where did the nanomaterials (CNTs and others) come from in the World Trade Center disaster?  The responses in the LinkedIn group have included a number of people who are working in the area of nanotechnology.  The responses have included information that the mechanisms of the airplanes crashing into the Towers and the high temperature explosions created a wide range of nanomaterials that are not seen in the normal world.  High temperature processes can produce nano-sized particles.  Natural events also produce nanomaterials.  This has always been true.  The difference is that now we have tools that can observe them.

An article like the one cited above, with it specific headline, is intended to cause concern in the general public, who do not have all the information.  The purpose is to scare people to be against whatever this supposed object is.  NANO – BOO! Be frightened, very frightened.  It is only by presenting facts and having open discussions that the true situation can be understood.

About Walt

I have been involved in various aspects of nanotechnology since the late 1970s. My interest in promoting nano-safety began in 2006 and produced a white paper in 2007 explaining the four pillars of nano-safety. I am a technology futurist and is currently focused on nanoelectronics, single digit nanomaterials, and 3D printing at the nanoscale. My experience includes three startups, two of which I founded, 13 years at SEMATECH, where I was a Senior Fellow of the technical staff when I left, and 12 years at General Electric with nine of them on corporate staff. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, an MBA from James Madison University, and a B.S. in Physics from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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