Innovation

Nanotechnology comes with a health risk

Nanotubes are microscopic graphite tubes that are lighter than plastic and as strong as metal. But research shows that this popular material used in everything from sports equipment to electronics has the same effect as asbestos. Now the question is how to manage the risk.

Technology gains all come with some risk. That shouldn't be news to anyone, uncharted waters always come with some risk. But once the risk is identified, it can be managed. Fortunately, scientists saw this risk coming long ago and started down the path of identifying it.

Carbon nanotubes, microscopic graphite cylinders used in a growing number of applications, can act similarly to asbestos if inhaled. This can potentially lead to mesothelioma, or cancer in the lining of the lungs. This, according to a major study published May 20 in Nature Nanotechnology.

Carbon nanotubes were discovered nearly 20 years ago. They have been described as the "wonder material" of the 21st century because they are as light as plastic but stronger than steel. They are being developed for use in new drugs, energy efficient batteries, and electronics. Nanotubes are expected to be a $2 billion industry within the next few years..

From the Washington Post:

But that production frenzy has raised concerns because the materials are being regulated on the basis of what they are made of — such as "carbon" — even though, by virtue of their size, some pose very different health and environmental risks.

The amount of government money going into environmental and health impacts of nanomaterials has been far outweighed by federal spending to support the fledgling industry. That is an issue Congress is currently wrestling with as it prepares to reauthorize the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which has been pumping about $1.5 billion a year into research, with only about 5 percent focused directly on health and safety.

"We've got to have the right research and really fast," said Andrew Maynard of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in Washington, a co-author of the new research report. "We've got to have a strategy in place. But no matter what the government says, if you look at it, there is not a clear vision of where they need to be or a plan of how to get there."

Fortunately, companies using nanotubes in products today saw the similarities between carbon nanotubes and asbestos early on. According to Unidym, a Menlo Park company exploring the use of carbon nanotubes in items such as touch screens, precautions have already been taken.

From The San Francisco Chronicle:

"This is what we expected. It fits with the paradigm that long and skinny fibers can cause asbestosis. It does not really matter if they are made of carbon or asbestos. The key is not getting them into the body," said Ken McElrath, vice president for product development materials at Unidym's facility in Houston, which manufactures the carbon nanotubes.

To protect employees from breathing nanotubes, the manufacturing is conducted in closed ventilated systems. People working with the nanotubes also are protected by dust masks with respiratory filters.

McElrath said he found the study to contain some positive news: Shorter carbon nanotubes might not be harmful.

"We are using these kinds of findings in our product design," he said. "We try to stay away from things that potentially cause problems."

A risk known is a risk that can be managed. While this sturdy is fascinating on its own, it reminds us that in order to truly assess risk in emerging technology, it is important to research everything. In this particular case, the assumption was that carbon nanotubes were no more harmful than graphite. Fortunately, the assumption has been proven wrong and appropriate precautions can be taken before negative exposure is widespread and business risk is escalated to billions of dollars.

While it is likely that none of us manage risk on this kind of scale, I found that this new information caused me to look at how I manage business risk with new eyes. Something that might have been thought of as a negligible risk may be the very thing that can de-rail an effort.

What are your thoughts?

Additional information:

Nanotechnology cancer risk found (LA Times)

What public health docs feared: Second study shows nanoparticles can cause lung-destroying disease just like asbestos (Seattle PI)

Carbon nanotubes that look like asbestos, behave like asbestos, could lead to asbestos related disease (Science Daily)

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