Putting the latest nano-scare in context

If you live in the UK, haven’t spent the past 24 hours holed up in a cave, and have had at least one sensory organ trained on a news source, then you’ve probably heard a particularly scary science story. This concerns a study that has just been published which appears to show that carbon nanotubes may lead to the extermination of the human race. Or something like that, depending on the degree of sensationalism in the reports you’ve seen and heard.

Carbon nanotubes

So what’s it all about? A team of scientists led by respiratory specialist Ken Donaldson at the University of Edinburgh has found that particularly long forms of single-walled carbon nanotubes could, when embedded in the lungs, have effects similar to asbestos. That is, experiments in mice show typical asbestosis-like inflammation and lesions.

This is clearly of concern, but it should be understood in context. We are talking about one of several forms of carbon nanotubes currently in use, and it is especially long nanotubes that can lead to health problems. We should also consider that there are many useful materials that are hazardous to health when used without appropriate controls. The question is how these are or should be controlled.

The Edinburgh study is the latest nano-toxicology study a number that have provided some rather mixed results. For specialist research and trade journals I’ve reported on similar work, including one experiment which showed how rapidly nanotubes pass through mucous membranes into the circulatory system and are excreted. In fact, some medical scientists looking to use carbon nanotubes in therapies are concerned about how quickly the material passes through the body.

I do not wish to underplay the significance of the Edinburgh-led study. If long nanotubes cause respiratory problems then we shall have to closely monitor and regulate their use. But people should take a close interest in this rapidly growing new technology and ask pertinent questions. Among these would be: how much of this nanotube material are we producing now, how much are we forecast to produce in the future, in which applications will nanotubes be used, and how do we control their environmental release and transport?

The report of the Edinburgh study was all over BBC radio news yesterday evening, and I woke up this morning to more of the same. Then, when I switched on my computer, there was waiting for me an email sent by a nano-sceptic acquaintance in Mexico. This contained a link to James Randerson’s piece in today’s Guardian. I recommend that you read Randerson’s report, and then have a good look at the BBC News website article by Jonathan Fildes, which is far more substantial. And I’m not talking here about relative numbers of words.

In the BBC article is a quote from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies‘ chief scientist Andrew Maynard, which I repeat here:

“As a society, we cannot afford not to exploit this incredible material, but neither can we afford to get it wrong – as we did with asbestos.”

Without having spoken with Donaldson, I’m reluctant to comment in detail on the ins and outs of today’s reporting of his study. But it raises questions in my mind about how certain journalists have dealt with the news release. For experts such as Maynard, who are responsible for promoting and coordinating environmental health and safety studies of engineered nanomaterials, all such publicity is (potentially) good publicity. At the same time, however, many of the reports circulating today are emotive and unscientific. That surely does nobody any good.