More must be done to understand environmental hazards of nanotech

Scientists' knowledge of how manmade nano-particles behave outside the confines of a laboratory is still far from complete and techniques must be developed to better assess potential damage they may cause to health and the environment.

This was the core message of Birmingham University’s Prof Jamie Lead when he spoke as part of a series of lectures at the Geological Society in London this week.

Prof Lead said that nanotechnology was a huge growth area with vast R&D budgets and that it was important to develop way of effectively measuring the impact of these particles.

As they are used in more and more consumer products it is inevitable that they will be released into the environment.

How they behave in the ‘wild’ is largely unknown at the moment, said Prof Lead, as they interact with naturally occurring nano-particles like dust and bacteria.

“They are all very very different and characterisation is essential,” he said.

“What we know least and need to know most are the things like metrology and analytical methods to track ENMs (Engineered Nano Materials).

“These haven’t been developed in any way at the moment but they’re one of the principal goals in the next five or six years to try to explain what’s happening in nanotechnology.”

He said that existing techniques for measuring and tracking nano-materials were not particularly effective when used individual, likening them to blind men trying to assess an elephant – one might find a leg and think it a tree, while another might find the tail and think it’s a snake.

Used together as a package, however, the tools that are currently at the disposal of scientists may have some value.

“We need this complimentary approach or we’ve no idea what’s going on,” he said.

Sam Bond

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