Ivy League lab to look at nanotech safety as EC holds public consultation

An Ivy League lab has won a grant of almost US$2 million to look into the toxicity of nanomaterials while the debate over whether traditional models can be relied on to analyse the safety of the tiny technology rumbles on in Europe.

Emerging nanotechnology is quietly becoming ubiquitous, finding its way into everything from tennis racquets to sunscreen, car bumpers to computer chips.

And while the apocalyptic ‘grey goo’ theory once famously espoused by Prince Charles may have been dismissed as science fiction by many, there are still huge gaps in our understanding of nanomaterials and serious concerns over their possible impact on human health and the environment.

So are they a mini menace, or a small wonder?

Scientists at Rhode Island’s Brown University have been awarded the US$1.8 million grant by the American National Science Foundation to test the toxicity, and ecotoxicity, of existing nanomaterials and see how they interact with human and animal cells.

The aim of the research will be to find out which sizes, shapes, compounds and coatings damage or kill cells so the information can be shared with industry and used to manufacture non-toxic types.

“The question isn’t whether nanomaterials are good or bad,” said Robert Hurt, a Brown professor of engineering and the lead investigator on the project.

“The question is which are toxic? Under what conditions? And can we make and purify them in different ways to avoid toxicity – to make ‘green’ nanomaterials?”

The grant is part of the National Science Foundations US$38.4 million budget for research into nanotechnology’s environmental, health and safety implications.

Meanwhile Europe has also acknowledged the need for more research into the safety aspects of the nascent technology.

The EU’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) has questioned the ‘appropriateness of existing methodologies to assess the potential risks associated with…nanotechnologies’.

Nanoparticles behave differently to their larger counterparts, following a little understood combination of the laws of both quantum and classic physics.

While this is where their attraction lies for scientists and engineers from a broad range of disciplines, it also makes their properties extremely problematic to predict.

Difficulties arise, says SCENIHR, when trying to guess at the adverse effects of nanoparticles based on the toxicity of the same materials on a larger scale.

The committee has said the concerns relating to nanotechnologies are likely to be the most significant it is likely to have to deal with in the next three to five years.

The European Council itself has also recognised the level of concern over nanotechnology, and has called for a “safe, sustainable, responsible and socially acceptable development and use of nanotechnologies.”

While the degree of interest being shown in ensuring nanotech is safe is reassuring, it remains to be seen whether fears of its potential impact on the environment are well founded, or simply the precautionary principle taken too far.

A public consultation into SCENIHR’s findings is now underway and interested parties are invited to share their opinion before December 16.

By Sam Bond

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