Canadian firefighter declares nanotechnologies a known danger

Capt. Peter McBride Ottawa (Canada) Fire Services declared that nanotechnology has been proven unsafe at a Fire Dept. Instructors Conference (FDIC)  in Indianapolis (US), which was held April 16-21, 2012. From the April 24, 2012 article by Ed Ballam for,

Firefighters and responders have known for decades that smoke is harmful to their health, but the latest studies have shown that the microscopic materials that become airborne during fires are far more deadly than ever realized. That’s because of the proliferation of nanotechnology – particles that are one billionth of a meter in size – that are found in today’s consumer products.

Capt. Peter McBride Ottawa (Canada) Fire Services spoke of the dangers of nanotechnologies, which contain known cancer causing materials, at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis. He is a safety officer in Ottawa, responsible for the health and safety of the firefighters in his department.

I’m not sure how McBride determined that these particles were cancer-causing or exactly which particles he’s discussing.  From the article,

He became acutely interested in nanotechnologies when a huge downtown sporting goods store burned and belched acrid black smoke for blocks. Carbon fiber sporting goods, including thousands of skis, burned and emitted microscopic particles that coated everything, particularly his white department-issued SUV. He noticed stubborn black deposits on the SUV that just wouldn’t come off.

Realizing smoke was an inherent hazard of firefighting, he set out to see exactly what that black goop was on his SUV and how to best protect his crews from its hazards.

And what he found is that when material with nanotechnology burns, it emits dangerous particulates.

In a sporting goods store fire, I’d expect carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles in the particulate matter as these are commonly used in sporting goods. If there were other nanoparticles created as a consequence of the fire, I’d like to know which ones.

On a more general note, we have been ingesting more nanoparticles than we know. For example, burning diesel gas which we have been inhaling for decades also emits dangerous particulates at the nanoscale as we recently found out (my Oct. 7, 2012 posting on diesel gas honey bees [scroll down 1/2 way]).

Getting back to firefighters and nanotechnology, my concern is that McBride is making a claim without supporting data as he does here in the article,

“I am not against nanotechnologies,” McBride said. “I am against us not doing anything to protect ourselves from the known dangers.” [emphasis mine]

Who knows about these dangers? I haven’t seen a single claim from a researcher about the ‘known dangers’ of nano: particles/materials/technologies. In fact, it’s the uncertainty that’s disturbing.

I’m not the only with issues about this piece, commenters have quickly noted the problems, from the article webpage (I fixed some minor typos),

  • Bmayo

I’m sorry but Captain Mc Bride is very mistaken In the world of engineering and science there is a huge difference between. .Nano and micro, micro is thousands of time larger than nano-particles. also the idea of keeping and using a the SCBA until the fire is totally out is nothing new. The fire service has been teaching this for over 30 years.


yeah, it’s just the specific mention of carcinogenicity, mentioned twice, that i want evidence for. that’s not a word you toss around casually in this industry.

Adam Sawyer

There are some legitimate health risks with certain types of combustible nanoparticles/nanofibers, but just because a product has “nanotechnology” in it does not necessarily mean it’s dangerous.  The challenge will be for fire safety researchers and toxicologists to collaborate and figure out what’s getting into the air and at what concentration.  Study it the same way plastics were studied decades ago and we’ll figure out which materials cause problems and which don’t.


Yep,,,,,The joys of Firefighting …


Very Very good article


I’m a safety trainer, and any small particulates can be hazardous, but I’d like information on the “known cancer causing materials.” I’ve never seen anything alleging that before, and if you have references, please list them.

No one could possibly fault McBride for his concerns about safety and it’s certainly true new nanotechnology-enabled products could pose special hazards. If McBride has data that supports his contention, I, like Antimatter, would like to see the references. I’d also appreciate a little more specificity with the terminology.

6 thoughts on “Canadian firefighter declares nanotechnologies a known danger

  1. Peter McBride

    To Frogheart – This was my post on FireHouse Web site in reply. Checking facts is a good thing… and then commenting is even better… …Nothing to be sorry about, nor am I mistaken, its just limited information you are commenting on. I am well aware of the scale differences between micro and nano.
    Anyone reading this article has to realize the reporter (who by the way, did a good job in capturing the concepts) can’t be expected to capture all I said in my lecture and have all the context.
    I told a story of discovery and it was one of warning that most of our fire service problems arises from a failure to manage consequences; in this instance the consequences of material science.
    I highlighted that nano materials are becoming ubiquitous in society as improvements to all sorts of technology. When these technologies fail or are involved in fire the have the potential to release copious amounts of micro and nano scale materials. The point being is that nano has been part of our world forever it just so happens that now we have nano technology (human engineered as opposed to natural or incidental sources).
    The use of SCBA was also not my key message; though very very important! I spoke to the issue of our failure to provide for basic industrial hygiene in our workplace. We need to stop tracking both micro and nano scale materials back to our homes (stations/personal homes/families).
    With respect to carcinogenicity, I made no specific claim but identified previous studies on the trans-location of carbon nano-tubes within humans and related that most of the research done to date focuses on cytotoxic effects (cell level toxicity) and doesn’t speak to the human effects.
    Mine was more a cautionary tale, again focused on sound industrial hygiene and medical concepts.
    We know carbon is atomically and chemically a sponge for all the Methyl Ethyl Bad Stuff (Class 1 A Carcinogens) and we know micro and nano materials are proven to be able to trans-locate within the human body and we know we see higher incidences of certain cancers (hence presumptive legislation) within the fire service… …so my key message was stop it at source by practicing industrial hygiene.
    Additionally, we in the fire service better advocate for controls, because in the industrial rush to be bigger, better and faster in the product world we in the fire service are left the job of being the consequence managers when these new products/materials fail. If we aren’t prepared or fail to understand the risks we will suffer the harmful consequences. Facts are, toxicity is a function of dose and no one can tell you what is a safe dose of nano particles… …that because these materials interact at the cellular and molecular level. I am just not that keen to be an experiment or a statistic… …I think these materials have the potential to be our next asbestos… …we should be wary and exercise caution and due diligence. That means you better have an industrial hygiene program.
    I trust this helps in explaining my intent and content of the lecture… thanks for caring

  2. admin

    Hi Peter! Thank you for taking the time to leave this comment to clarify your reported comments. If I remember rightly, firefighters are more prone to certain kinds of diseases due to their occupational exposure to chemicals. Given that these chemicals are often not tested under the conditions that firefighters encounter them, the firefighters are, effectively, test subjects. Out of ignorance, we ask a great deal of the people who risk their lives to assist us in emergency situations such as fires. It behooves us all to demand greater safety measures and chemical testing on behalf of firefighters and other emergency services personnel.

    I too am concerned about carbon nanotubes (CNT) and don’t understand why the writer never specified exactly which nanoparticles were of concern. In fact, the writer did not appear to have a grasp of the basic terminology and for that, I fault him. Words are important as they can have a huge impact. I feel strongly that writers have a responsibility to the communities they are writing for (firefighters) and writing about (nanotechnology/nanoscience).

    Firefighters need to be better informed about the dangers/concerns (BTW, you haven’t supplied any data/references to studies supporting your contention that ‘nanotechnologies cause cancer’) and to take precautions. As for CNTs specifically, while I have seen some disturbing studies I have not yet seen any that claim CNTs cause cancer. I’d appreciate any references you have to such studies. In the meantime, I applaud your concern over CNTs, as I have noted both in this response and in my posting (April 26, 2012) about a new CNT composite being used in body armour, it is one that I share.

    I gather you were initially alerted to my posting after seeing it listed on Tim Harper’s Cientifica website. He very kindly passed on some of his comments to you, which I’m including for completeness.

    You raise some important points though, and it’s good to see a real world and informed perspective on this matter.

    A few issues from my side
    1. Any kind of combustion creates nanoparticles as well as a range of other particle sizes. When we talk about cancer causing nanoparticles there is no evidence to date that there is a causative link, and of course there are a wide variety of different nanoparticles materials which are in use. However, the high cost of these materials means that the amounts that would be liberated through combustion are probably insignificant – note the use of ‘probably’
    2. Life cycle of nanomaterials is an issue and as their use becomes more widespread there will be more contact with them. However, I’d be willing to bet that there were more nanomaterials on the IT equipment that burned than in the sporting goods.
    3. I agree 100% with your caution. In general many nanomaterials are treated as toxic unless proven otherwise – we can be pretty sure that arsenic nanomaterials will be toxic, but is graphene? It’s not just chemical composition that causes toxicological effects, but also shape as we realised with the inability of alveolar macrophages to digest asbestos fibres.

    In the workplace it’s easy to put controls in place that limit exposure, but pretty much impossible for firefighters. Do you use any chemical detection equipment, or is there any ongoing research into this area?

    I hope you are successful in raising awareness amongst firefighters and, perhaps even, establish a campaign to get research funds for more occupational health and safety data about the impact these relatively new nanotechnology-enabled products could have on emergency personnel.
    Best regards,

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  4. Peter McBride

    To Admin (Maryse) Thanks for the reply.
    I too share your concern for facts and getting it right and that is why I took issue with the title and tone of the blog and linking of comment to me without any provenance.
    I never cited any studies linking CNT to cancer; I specifically mentioned cytotoxic effects and the lack of causative studies. Again, language and terminology are very important and in my reply I believe I gave the limitations of my comments.
    In your reply you relate that you believe that we (firefighters) are more prone to certain cancers due to our exposures to chemicals. This is correct and beyond argument as countless studies have shown.
    I make the obvious leap to the routes of contamination (inhalation, ingestion and cutaneous transmission). Smoke from a fire is a matrix of the physical states of matter: solids, liquids and gases are the forms in which the chemicals present themselves to the fire fighter in the course of our work. CNT, (for Tim’s Harper’s benefit I reiterate) I understand and clearly outlined nano particles are present in all fires but, what I was saying was that we are now introducing nano-technology where we are producing these materials as inclusions to regular household items – therefore the potential for more items decomposing in a typical fire.
    My expressed concern was basic industrial hygiene is required to mitigate the high probability of exposure to CNT that in and of themselves may not be toxic chemically or conversely very efficient at delivering toxic chemicals throughout the body – hence my reference to translocation of CNT within the body (references can be found via or via the Good Nano Guide website), Equally, the morphology of these materials when liberated in a fire, presents a physical hazard at the cellular level similar to the way asbestos lodges in alveolar sacs within the lung – and we know what that can do. I don’t believe we need hard proof to exercise caution and I know we will see further studies showing the serious ill health effects of these materials in the future as there are countless examples in history where advocates of materials/chemicals and new formulations are poorly controlled and ill informed populations suffer. The people who advocate otherwise typically, work for a company that sells the product or are venture capitalists and the only metric or overriding metric is profit.
    I think it is important that we speak to these issues well ahead of the problem and I thank you for your advocacy and wanted to be sure that when my name is used in the context of your reporting that what I said and what was intended is clearly communicated and that those reporting or blogging also work from the facts and report what I said. I was hoping to see a new headline either retracting the attributed statements and or a headline saying you got it wrong and post what I actually said.
    Thanks for Caring.

  5. admin

    Hi Peter! I think we’re both in agreement that firefighters are at great risk and should take every possible precaution regarding products that may be nanotechnology-enabled. However, I’m a little perplexed by your statement that I’ve gotten my facts wrong. What precisely did I get wrong? I quoted directly from Ballam’s article on (here’s one of the excerpts I used in my April 25, 2012 posting),

    “I am not against nanotechnologies,” McBride said. “I am against us not doing anything to protect ourselves from the known dangers.” [emphasis mine]

    I also noted my source and provided a link back to the original article both in the posting and in this comment. I don’t really understand your claim that I don’t provide provenance, doesn’t providing a link and identifying the source qualify as provenance?

    As for your comments, you have yet to provide a single reference to a study that supports your contention that “nanotechnologies” present known dangers. In fact, the only reference you supply is to a search page. Thank you, by the way. I did pick out a report (Best Practices Guide to Synthetic Nanoparticle Risk Management) from the search page, which states this:

    Several studies have been performed on different animal species to determine whether NPs [nanoparticles] can have toxic health effects. NPs soluble in biological fluids dissolve and their toxic effects are related to their different chemical components, independent of the particle’s initial size. These effects are well known, depending on chemical composition, and are not specific to nanometric dimensions. The situation is completely different for NPs that are insoluble or very weakly soluble in the organism. The data currently available on toxicity of insoluble NPs are extremely limited and normally do not allow a quantitative risk assessment or an extrapolation to humans, except possibly for TiO2. [emphasis mine] Nonetheless, they reveal some information, which, although fragmentary, gives reason to conclude that NPs must be handled with care. This is because a product mass of the same chemical composition is normally more toxic if it is nanoscaled than if it is larger in size. The worker’s exposure thus must be minimized, because several toxic effects have been documented, even though they are extremely variable from one product to another.

    This report was published by the IRSST (L’Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail), NanoQuébec, and another Québec-based agency (I’m not familiar with that one). Claude Ostiguy, one of the authors, is known internationally for his work in the area of occupational health and safety and engineered nanomaterials. While this report is dated 2009, I’m not aware of any document which supersedes it or any published research that offers a more definitive statement of the dangers of engineered nanoparticles. As for the report’s section on fires, it is largely confined to concerns about explosiveness.

    Frankly I find the paragraph I’ve excerpted from the report a little contradictory. The part I’ve highlighted states explicitly that data about the toxicity of insoluble NPs in an organism is very limited and it’s not possible to extrapolate to humans. Yet, later they seem to be doing extrapolating and they don’t cite their sources.

    Again, I think everyone can agree that firefighters need to adhere to stringent industry hygiene and safety practices in the face of nanotechnology and other emerging technologies being incorporated into our daily lives.

    As for the tone of my posting, I make no apologies.

    Best regards,

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