Nasty case of nanophobia?
We're entering a new era. Nano particles look set to play a part in every aspect of our lives. But some say that the revolutionary tiny technology may pose a 'serious threat to human health'. Rob Bell reports
However, 2008 could be the year everything changes, according to Deloitte Technology, Media & Telecommunications' Technology Predictions report. While the UK's Soil Association has been trumpeting its total ban on nanoparticles in health and beauty products, food and textiles, calling itself the "the first organisation in the world to take action against this hazardous, potentially toxic technology that poses a serious new threat to human health", Deloitte believes this year presents an opportunity to "reverse the public's demonisation of nanotechnology and replace its horns with a green-tinged halo".
The Soil Association, which describes itself as the UK's leading campaigning and certification organisation for organic food and farming, banned nanoparticles from its organic certification in January, in order to "safeguard the public". The association says there is little understanding as yet of how nanoparticles affect living organisms, but initial studies show negative effects, and its action was therefore in line with the precautionary principle.
Policy manager Gundula Azeez says: "There should be no place for nanoparticles in health and beauty products or food. We are deeply concerned at the government's failure to follow scientific advice and regulate products. There should be an immediate freeze on the commercial release of nanomaterials until there is a sound body of scientific research into all the health impacts. As we saw with GMOs, the government is ignoring the initial indications of risk and giving the benefit of the doubt to commercial interest rather than the protection of human health."
However, according to the Deloitte report, nanotechnology could have an important role to play in healing the planet. In fact, it is already being used in applications ranging from hydrogen generation and improved photovoltaic surfaces to contaminated land remediation.
Edward Moran, an international expert on emerging technologies, who helped produce the report, says: "We've seen a lot of groups saying 'we're not going to allow any nanotechnology', but what does that mean? Salt is a nanoparticle. Pepper, if ground small enough, is nano-pepper. So, you wouldn't let me put it on my chef's salad? When I hear those kind of comments, I say to myself 'this is fear-mongering'. It's not scientific and it's not precise.
"If these groups had a rational way of explaining exactly what they're banning and why, we could have a rational discussion. But a total ban is crazy - you can't have a rational discussion on that basis."
Moran also dismisses the comparison with the GMO debate, where environmentalists who feared genetically modified genes would escape through cross-pollination were proved at least partially right.
He says: "The big difference between the nanotech and GMO debates is that we're not going to introduce something that never existed before into the environment, something that has the ability to replicate itself.
"If there's a problem with a nanocollagen in lipgloss, the products are recalled and once that is done the problem is over. Also, nanotech tends to be embedded in a material rather than free-flowing. For example if a composite plastic in a vehicle that contains nanoparticles to make it stronger and lighter is found to be a horrible carcinogen, it's locked up in the bumper not in the air you breathe."
Moran is not alone in believing that the dangers of nanotechnology are being exaggerated while its benefits attract meagre attention. However, the growing tide of research findings and commercial launches of nanotech-enabled environmental advances mean Deloitte's predictions for 2008 may well be realised.
Researchers are engineering silica particles to remove chemicals, bacteria and viruses from water cheaply and much more effectively than conventional technologies, an advance that could go some way to saving many of the 6,000 lives UNESCO says are lost to water-related diseases every day.
Moran says: "What a wonderful benefit from what's basically an extremely effective strainer, something that anyone from grade school onwards can understand. And it's not going to fly through the air and attack you.
"We all know that clean water is a massive global problem and here's a great example of how working with materials at a nanoscale can help improve lives."
Another application showing enormous environmental promise is SiGNa Chemistry's technology based on nano-scale encapsulation of reactive metals and described by the World Economic Forum as "the most significant advancement in reactive metal processing in more than a century".
SiGNa's technology produces an inert, safe-to-handle powder from highly reactive alkali metals - such as sodium; much beloved of college chemistry students - and silica gel. The stabilised metal powders are in use in the pharmaceutical, petrochemical industries, biofuels, contaminated-land remediation and other industries, and are also being used in research into hydrogen production for fuels.
President and CEO Michael Lefenfeld says: "Alkali metals are very powerful chemically and can be used in a litany of different applications, but they have always been avoided because they explode into flame when exposed to air or water. Where they were used, multiple steps need to be built into the process due to the danger.
"We're able to provide stabilised metals that retain the reactivity, and they're cleaner; don't require cryogenic temperatures, so energy use is minimised; and they don't need heavy-duty containment to store.
"Nanotechnology is a new technology and as such needs careful watching and testing. However, advancement should not be limited."
Potential health risks from nanotechnology clearly do exist - even if it is simply a case of them acting exactly like the particulates we are struggling to eliminate from the UK's air once within the human body.
Moran says: "Whenever we bring new technologies into the market there is always a risk. You don't need to look far back in history to find technologies that have caused enormous harm - the petrochemicals industry for example. If we'd never begun to process oil, a lot fewer people would have cancer. However, society tends to make choices - weighing the benefits against the disadvantages. Petrochemicals do a lot of good, but they also introduce pollutants into our environment."
The US Environmental Protection Agency, which has been enthusiastic about supporting research through grants and in its own Office of Research and Development laboratories, has recognised this with £3.6M million in grants to universities to investigate potential adverse health and environmental effects of manufactured nanomaterials.
This is a tiny amount compared with the billions being poured into commercial research, bringing to mind the revelation during the debate on the REACH chemicals regulations that of over 100,000 chemicals in use in the EU, only 3,000 had ever been tested for their impacts on human health. However, the sheer promise of nanotechnology's environmental applications, alongside the immediacy of the threats to the global environment means undue caution could have negative consequences.
Moran says: "The pharmaceutical sector is using nanoparticles, but no one seems to know about the green tech side of things, improving our world and our environment. I really do believe that once people see all these terrific applications in clean, green technology happening, attitudes will change."
Moran believes government, industry and the scientific community have been negligent in not stepping up to the plate to work to change public perceptions of nanotechnology from threat to human existence to a potential source of clean light, heat, fuel, water and land.
He says: "Every government in the world has a nanotech research programme, so they should be getting the message out there about what it has to offer.
"Researchers, government, regulators and industry should be saying 'here are the dangers, these are the advantages, and here's what we're doing to protect society while utilising these advances to improve our lives and the planet'."
Public acceptance is a key step for any emerging technology, and with the environment a growing concern for most, nanotech's offer of clean solutions to industrial problems should help to swing the tide. However, prevailing public opinion remains negative despite or perhaps because of a lack of understanding.
Moran says: "I'd hate to see things swing all the way to 'ban everything now until we know it's safe' instead of 'use it until we know it's dangerous'."
Rob Bell is a freelance journalist