Why Nanotechnology Is NOT The “New Asbestos”

A recent poll by the UK charity the Mental Health Foundation found that 77% of people found the world more frightening than in 1999, and put some of the blame on the “worst-case-scenario language” sometimes used by politicians, pressure groups, businesses and public bodies.

It does seem to be true that to get any kind of (media) attention you have to conjure up an apocalyptic scenario in order to be heard. It permeates every area of life, at least in Britain, requiring the most implausible scenarios to be given equal attention to more mundane ones.

While setting up a recent retail venture I needed to rent a shop and get it spruced up. Normally one would think that getting a  few quotes from painters and decorators and choosing a  colour scheme would be enough to get things moving, but not any more. In a five page ‘pre-approval checklist” the landlord (a bank) requires a full and separate fire and health and safety assessments to be carried out before we can even start work.

This means paying a  few hundred pounds for a bloke with a  clipboard to come round to take a look, and then write an official report stating that in the event of a fire, shoppers should be evacuated through the front and back doors and should under no circumstances grab all the teaspoons and attempt to tunnel out via the basement.  The health and safety assessment will no doubt consider actions to be taken if a decorator falls off a ladder, mistakenly drinks a gallon of floor paint.

Hopefully the health and safety assessment of the health and safety assessor will have considered what course of action to take in the rather more likely event of getting a paint brush jammed up his backside by an angry builder.

Equally ludicrous is the fear that nanotechnology may be the next asbestos by a variety of lawyers and trade unionists in Australia who seem to have missed the debate we had on this four of five years ago. Public debate of nanotechnologies in Australia seems to involve a lot of shouting, swearing and storming out of meetings and we can now add attempting to terrify people with half truths to that mix.

Let’s be quite clear, carbon nanotubes are long thin filaments that have the potential to behave like asbestos in certain circumstances and depending on the length of the nanotube, but that is the only similarity, and a glance at a brief history of asbestos shows why, but here is a key difference.

When asbestos began to be widely used in the 1870’s there were no electron microscopes capable of understanding the structure of the material, it was simply some useful stuff. In the 1990’s when carbon nanotubes began to be analysed the appearance of long filaments led researchers to immediately question whether that material could behave likes asbestos and as a result huge amounts of money have been spent on environmental health and safety studies of nanomaterials ever since. Asbestos had been widely used for a hundred years before anyone thought about health and safety.

Even so, the risk posed by a material is related to its chances of a sufficient quantity of it being ingested, which is why asbestosis tended to affect people working with asbestos and producing air borne dust such as  miners, builders etc rather than people simply living in a building containing it.

But asbestos was widely used because it was cheap, whereas nanomaterials are phenomenally expensive. You would have to be crazy to build a roof with carbon nanotubes, it would be cheaper to use bricks made from compressed cocaine, and anyway it wouldn’t work. For most nanomaterials you have to mix them with something else, a polymer of a resin to form any kind of structure, otherwise all you have is a bag of dust, and once those materials are embedded in a composite it is highly unlikely that they will ever be inhaled.

This is a rather simplistic treatment of the whole nano safety issue, and for more in depth information SafeNano is a good place to start. I’d suggest all the lawyers sniffing fat fees from future class action suits and dreaming of running ads like the one below pop along to SafeNano too. I usually pay my lawyers on the understanding that they know what they are taking about, or at least can get expert advice. I certainly wouldn’t use a law firm that puts out scare stories and half truths to try to win business, isn’t that illegal?

“If you or a loved one has suffered from exposure to nanoparticles or other nanomaterials, you may qualify for damages or remedies that may be awarded in a possible class action lawsuit. Please click the link below to submit your complaint and we will have a lawyer review your Nanotechnology complaint.”

So when we look at any emerging technology, the 21st century situation is very different from that of the 1930’s. the last fifty years have seen huge advances in all sciences, from physics to toxicology, and the use if computing means that there is no reason for any researcher to be ignorant of anyone else’s results. Many of the mistakes made with materials in the past were due to ignorance of the structure of the material and its interaction with the environment. Now we have a huge array of tools to probe the structure of matter, and a massive and accessible body of knowledge of past mistakes to draw on, whether the toxic effects caused by the chirality of drug molecules or the structure of materials asbestosis, all available with a few clicks of a mouse.

There is really no need for anyone to be ignorant any more, scientists or lawyers.

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  1. Pingback: Why Nanotechnology Is NOT The "New Asbestos" | TNTlog | Nano Broadcast

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