We should learn from asbestos mistakes – nanotech professor

A Scottish academic who is a nationally respected authority on nanotech has warned that without proper safety testing the tiny technology could come back to haunt us as asbestos did.

Edinburgh-based Professor Anthony Seaton told a London conference, Nanoparticles for European Industry, this week that thousands of products containing untested nanotech were reaching the shelves and the future health implications were an unknown, even to the experts.

When asbestos found favour with the construction industry nobody suspected that the tiny particles it contains could enter the lungs, leading to asbestosis and other serious respiratory ailments.

Professor Seaton warned that it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that tiny nanoparticles could have a similar effect on human health.

In 2004 Seaton helped draw up a report for the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineers looking at the implications of adopting nanotech for day-to-day commercial use.

Although Defra has asked companies engaged in the use and research of nanotech to sign up to a voluntary reporting scheme while it draws up official guidelines for its use, there are no legal binding controls in the UK.

The recommendations of the 2004 report have been largely ignored, Seaton told the conference, and while the new technology could have huge potential benefits for industry and society as a whole the safety implications were been brushed over.

A health scare could damage the reputation of an important field of research, the professor warned, and industry needed to tread carefully.

Nanotechnology can already be found in hundreds of high street goods, from sun cream to sports equipment and many more products are expected to reach the shelves in coming months.

Representatives of companies using the products dismissed Seaton’s health warning, arguing all nanotech is thoroughly tested for safety before use in commercial goods.

Sam Bond

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