Tag Archives: asbestos

Inadvertent carbon nanotube production from your car

It’s disconcerting to find out that cars inadvertently produce carbon nanotubes which are then spilled into the air we breathe. Researchers at Rice University (US) and Paris-Saclay University (France) have examined matter from car exhausts and dust in various parts of Paris finding carbon nanotubes (CNTs). Further, they also studied the lungs of Parisian children who have asthma and found CNTs there too.

The scientists have carefully stated that CNTs have been observed in lung cells but they are not claiming causality (i.e., they don’t claim the children’s asthma was caused by CNTs).

An Oct. 20, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now introduces the research,

Cars appear to produce carbon nanotubes, and some of the evidence has been found in human lungs.

Rice University scientists working with colleagues in France have detected the presence of man-made carbon nanotubes in cells extracted from the airways of Parisian children under routine treatment for asthma. Further investigation found similar nanotubes in samples from the exhaust pipes of Paris vehicles and in dust gathered from various places around the city.

The researchers reported in the journal EBioMedicine this month that these samples align with what has been found elsewhere, including Rice’s home city of Houston, in spider webs in India and in ice cores.

An Oct. 19, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, painstakingly describes the work and initial conclusions,

The research in no way ascribes the children’s conditions to the nanotubes, said Rice chemist Lon Wilson, a corresponding author of the new paper. But the nanotubes’ apparent ubiquity should be the focus of further investigation, he said.

“We know that carbon nanoparticles are found in nature,” Wilson said, noting that round fullerene molecules like those discovered at Rice are commonly produced by volcanoes, forest fires and other combustion of carbon materials. “All you need is a little catalysis to make carbon nanotubes instead of fullerenes.”

A car’s catalytic converter, which turns toxic carbon monoxide into safer emissions, bears at least a passing resemblance to the Rice-invented high-pressure carbon monoxide, or HiPco, process to make carbon nanotubes, he said. “So it is not a big surprise, when you think about it,” Wilson said.

The team led by Wilson, Fathi Moussa of Paris-Saclay University and lead author Jelena Kolosnjaj-Tabi, a graduate student at Paris-Saclay, analyzed particulate matter found in the alveolar macrophage cells (also known as dust cells) that help stop foreign materials like particles and bacteria from entering the lungs.

The researchers wrote that their results “suggest humans are routinely exposed” to carbon nanotubes. They also suggested previous studies that link the carbon content of airway macrophages and the decline of lung function should be reconsidered in light of the new findings. Moussa confirmed his lab will continue to study the impact of man-made nanotubes on health.

The cells were taken from 69 randomly selected asthma patients aged 2 to 17 who underwent routine fiber-optic bronchoscopies as part of their treatment. For ethical reasons, no cells from healthy patients were analyzed, but because nanotubes were found in all of the samples, the study led the researchers to conclude that carbon nanotubes are likely to be found in everybody.

The study notes but does not make definitive conclusions about the controversial proposition that carbon nanotube fibers may act like asbestos, a proven carcinogen. But the authors reminded that “long carbon nanotubes and large aggregates of short ones can induce a granulomatous (inflammation) reaction.”

The study partially answers the question of what makes up the black material inside alveolar macrophages, the original focus of the study. The researchers found single-walled and multiwalled carbon nanotubes and amorphous carbon among the cells, as well as in samples swabbed from the tailpipes of cars in Paris and dust from various buildings in and around the city.

The news release goes on to detail how the research was conducted,

“The concentrations of nanotubes are so low in these samples that it’s hard to believe they would cause asthma, but you never know,” Wilson said. “What surprised me the most was that carbon nanotubes were the major component of the carbonaceous pollution we found in the samples.”

The nanotube aggregates in the cells ranged in size from 10 to 60 nanometers in diameter and up to several hundred nanometers in length, small enough that optical microscopes would not have been able to identify them in samples from former patients. The new study used more sophisticated tools, including high-resolution transmission electron microscopy, X-ray spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy and near-infrared fluorescence microscopy to definitively identify them in the cells and in the environmental samples.

“We collected samples from the exhaust pipes of cars in Paris as well as from busy and non-busy intersections there and found the same type of structures as in the human samples,” Wilson said.

“It’s kind of ironic. In our laboratory, working with carbon nanotubes, we wear facemasks to prevent exactly what we’re seeing in these samples, yet everyone walking around out there in the world probably has at least a small concentration of carbon nanotubes in their lungs,” he said.

The researchers also suggested that the large surface areas of nanotubes and their ability to adhere to substances may make them effective carriers for other pollutants.

The study followed one released by Rice and Baylor College of Medicine earlier this month with the similar goal of analyzing the black substance found in the lungs of smokers who died of emphysema. That study found carbon black nanoparticles that were the product of the incomplete combustion of such organic material as tobacco.

Here’s an image of a sample,

 Caption: Carbon nanotubes (the long rods) and nanoparticles (the black clumps) appear in vehicle exhaust taken from the tailpipes of cars in Paris. The image is part of a study by scientists in Paris and at Rice University to analyze carbonaceous material in the lungs of asthma patients. They found that cars are a likely source of nanotubes found in the patients. Credit: Courtesy of Fathi Moussa/Paris-Saclay University

Caption: Carbon nanotubes (the long rods) and nanoparticles (the black clumps) appear in vehicle exhaust taken from the tailpipes of cars in Paris. The image is part of a study by scientists in Paris and at Rice University to analyze carbonaceous material in the lungs of asthma patients. They found that cars are a likely source of nanotubes found in the patients.
Credit: Courtesy of Fathi Moussa/Paris-Saclay University

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Anthropogenic Carbon Nanotubes Found in the Airways of Parisian Children by Jelena Kolosnjaj-Tabi, Jocelyne Just, Keith B. Hartman, Yacine Laoudi, Sabah Boudjemaa, Damien Alloyeau, Henri Szwarc, Lon J. Wilson, & Fathi Moussa. EBioMedicine doi:10.1016/j.ebiom.2015.10.012 Available online 9 October 2015

This paper is open access.

ETA Oct. 26, 2015: Dexter Johnson, along with Dr. Andrew Maynard, provides an object lesson on how to read science research in an Oct. 23, 2015 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]),

“From past studies, the conditions in combustion engines seem to favor the production of at least some CNTs (especially where there are trace metals in lubricants that can act as catalysts for CNT growth),” explained Andrew Maynard Director, Risk Innovation Lab and Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, in an e-mail interview. Says Maynard:

What, to my knowledge, is still not known, is the relative concentrations of CNT in ambient air that may be inhaled, the precise nature of these CNT in terms of physical and chemical structure, and the range of sources that may lead to ambient CNT. This is important, as the potential for fibrous particles to cause lung damage depends on characteristics such as their length—and many of the fibers shown in the paper appear too short to raise substantial concerns.”

Nonetheless, Maynard praises the research for establishing that these carbon nanotube-like fibers are part of the urban aerosol and therefore end up in the lungs of anyone who breathes it in. However, he cautions that the findings don’t provide information on the potential health risks associated with these exposures.

It’s a good read not only for the information but the mild snarkiness (assuming you find that kind of thing amusing) that spices up the piece.

Dunkin’ Donuts and nano titanium dioxide

It’s been a busy few days for titanium dioxide, nano and otherwise, as the news about its removal from powdered sugar in Dunkin’ Donuts products ripples through the nano blogosphere. A March 6, 2015 news item on Azonano kicks off the discussion with an announcement,

Dunkin’ Brands, the parent company of the Dunkin’ Donuts chain, has agreed to remove titanium dioxide, a whitening agent that is commonly a source of nanomaterials, from all powdered sugar used to make the company’s donuts. As a result of this progress, the advocacy group As You Sow has withdrawn a shareholder proposal asking Dunkin’ to assess and reduce the risks of using nanomaterials in its food products.

Here’s a brief recent history of Dunkin’ Donuts and nano titanium dioxide from my Aug. 21, 2014 posting titled, FOE, nano, and food: part two of three (the problem with research),

Returning to the ‘debate’, a July 11, 2014 article by Sarah Shemkus for a sponsored section in the UK’s Guardian newspaper highlights an initiative taken by an environmental organization, As You Sow, concerning titanium dioxide in Dunkin’ Donuts’ products (Note: A link has been removed),

The activists at environmental nonprofit As You Sow want you to take another look at your breakfast doughnut. The organization recently filed a shareholder resolution asking Dunkin’ Brands, the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts, to identify products that may contain nanomaterials and to prepare a report assessing the risks of using these substances in foods.

Their resolution received a fair amount of support: at the company’s annual general meeting in May, 18.7% of shareholders, representing $547m in investment, voted for it. Danielle Fugere, As You Sow’s president, claims that it was the first such resolution to ever receive a vote. Though it did not pass, she says that she is encouraged by the support it received.

“That’s a substantial number of votes in favor, especially for a first-time resolution,” she says.

The measure was driven by recent testing sponsored by As You Sow, which found nanoparticles of titanium dioxide in the powdered sugar that coats some of the donut chain’s products. [emphasis mine] An additive widely used to boost whiteness in products from toothpaste to plastic, microscopic titanium dioxide has not been conclusively proven unsafe for human consumption. Then again, As You Sow contends, there also isn’t proof that it is harmless.

“Until a company can demonstrate the use of nanomaterials is safe, we’re asking companies either to not use them or to provide labels,” says Fugere. “It would make more sense to understand these materials before putting them in our food.”

As I understand it, Dunkin’ Donuts will be removing all titanium dioxide, nano-sized or other, from powdered sugar used in its products. It seems As You Sow’s promise to withdraw its July 2104 shareholder resolution is the main reason for Dunkin’ Donuts’ decision. While I was and am critical of Dunkin’ Donuts’ handling of the situation with As You Sow, I am somewhat distressed that the company seems to have acquiesced on the basis of research which is, at best, inconclusive.

Dr. Andrew Maynard, director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Centre, has written a substantive analysis of the current situation regarding nano titanium dioxide in a March 12, 2015 post on his 2020 Science blog (Note: Links have been removed),

Titanium dioxide (which isn’t the same thing as the metal titanium) is an inert, insoluble material that’s used as a whitener in everything from paper and paint to plastics. It’s the active ingredient in many mineral-based sunscreens. And as a pigment, is also used to make food products look more appealing.

Part of the appeal to food producers is that titanium dioxide is a pretty dull chemical. It doesn’t dissolve in water. It isn’t particularly reactive. It isn’t easily absorbed into the body from food. And it doesn’t seem to cause adverse health problems. It just seems to do what manufacturers want it to do – make food look better. It’s what makes the powdered sugar coating on donuts appear so dense and snow white. Titanium dioxide gives it a boost.

And you’ve probably been consuming it for years without knowing. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration allows food products to contain up to 1% food-grade titanium dioxide without the need to include it on the ingredient label. Help yourself to a slice of bread, a bar of chocolate, a spoonful of mayonnaise or a donut, and chances are you’ll be eating a small amount of the substance.

Andrew goes on to describe the concerns that groups such as You As Sow have (Note: Links have been removed),

For some years now, researchers have recognized that some powders become more toxic the smaller the individual particles are, and titanium dioxide is no exception. Pigment grade titanium dioxide – the stuff typically used in consumer products and food – contains particles around 200 nanometers in diameter, or around one five hundredth the width of a human hair. Inhale large quantities of these titanium dioxide particles (I’m thinking “can’t see your hand in front of your face” quantities), and your lungs would begin to feel it.

If the particles are smaller though, it takes much less material to cause the same effect.

But you’d still need to inhale very large quantities of the material for it to be harmful. And while eating a powdered donut can certainly be messy, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to end up stuck in a cloud of titanium dioxide-tinted powdered sugar coating!

… Depending on what they are made of and what shape they are, research has shown that some nanoparticles are capable of getting to parts of the body that are inaccessible to larger particles. And some particles are more chemically reactive because of their small size. Some may cause unexpected harm simply because they are small enough to throw a nano-wrench into the nano-workings of your cells.

This body of research is why organizations like As You Sow have been advocating caution in using nanoparticles in products without appropriate testing – especially in food. But the science about nanoparticles isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

As Andrew notes,

First of all, particles of the same size but made of different materials can behave in radically different ways. Assuming one type of nanoparticle is potentially harmful because of what another type does is the equivalent of avoiding apples because you’re allergic to oysters.

He describes some of the research on nano titanium dioxide (Note: Links have been removed),

… In 2004 the European Food Safety Agency carried out a comprehensive safety review of the material. After considering the available evidence on the same materials that are currently being used in products like Dunkin’ Donuts, the review panel concluded that there no evidence for safety concerns.

Most research on titanium dioxide nanoparticles has been carried out on ones that are inhaled, not ones we eat. Yet nanoparticles in the gut are a very different proposition to those that are breathed in.

Studies into the impacts of ingested nanoparticles are still in their infancy, and more research is definitely needed. Early indications are that the gastrointestinal tract is pretty good at handling small quantities of these fine particles. This stands to reason given the naturally occurring nanoparticles we inadvertently eat every day, from charred foods and soil residue on veggies and salad, to more esoteric products such as clay-baked potatoes. There’s even evidence that nanoparticles occur naturally inside the gastrointestinal tract.

He also probes the issue’s, nanoparticles, be they titanium dioxide or otherwise, and toxicity, complexity (Note: Links have been removed),

There’s a small possibility that we haven’t been looking in the right places when it comes to possible health issues. Maybe – just maybe – there could be long term health problems from this seemingly ubiquitous diet of small, insoluble particles that we just haven’t spotted yet. It’s the sort of question that scientists love to ask, because it opens up new avenues of research. It doesn’t mean that there is an issue, just that there is sufficient wiggle room in what we don’t know to ask interesting questions.

… While there is no evidence of a causal association between titanium dioxide in food and ill health, some studies – but not all by any means – suggest that large quantities of titanium dioxide nanoparticles can cause harm if they get to specific parts of the body.

For instance, there are a growing number of published studies that indicate nanometer sized titanium dioxide particles may cause DNA damage at high concentrations if it can get into cells. But while these studies demonstrate the potential for harm to occur, they lack information on how much material is needed, and under what conditions, for significant harm. And they tend to be associated with much larger quantities of material than anyone is likely to be ingesting on a regular basis.

They are also counterbalanced by studies that show no effects, indicating that there is still considerable uncertainty over the toxicity or otherwise of the material. It’s as if we’ve just discovered that paper can cause cuts, but we’re not sure yet whether this is a minor inconvenience or potentially life threatening. In the case of nanoscale titanium dioxide, it’s the classic case of “more research is needed.”

I strongly suggest reading Andrew’s post in its entirety either here on the University of Michigan website or here on The Conversation website.

Dexter Johnson in a March 11, 2015 post on his Nanoclast blog also weighs in on the discussion. He provides a very neat summary of the issues along with these observations (Note Links have been removed),

With decades of TiO2 being in our food supply and no reports of toxic reactions, it would seem that the threshold for proof is extremely high, especially when you combine the term “nano” with “asbestos”.

As You Sow makes sure to point out that asbestos is a nanoparticle. While the average diameter of an asbestos fiber is around 20 to 90 nm, their lengths varied between 200 nm and 200 micrometers.

The toxic aspect of asbestos was not its diameter, but its length. …

In addition to his summary Dexter highlights As You Sows attempt to link titanium dioxide nanoparticles to asbestos. I suggest reading his post for an informed description of what made asbestos so toxic (here) and why the linkage seems specious at this time.

For anyone interested in how As You Sow managed to introduce asbestos toxicity issues into a discussion about nano titanium dioxide and food products, there’s this from As You Sow’s FAQs (frequently asked questions) about nanomaterials in food page,

Why are nanomaterials in food important to investors?

When technology is used before ensuring that it is safe for humans and the environment, and before regulatory standards exist, companies can be exposed to significant financial, legal, and reputational risk. The limited studies that exist on nanomaterials, including nanoscale titanium dioxide*, have indicated that ingestion of these particles may pose health hazards.

The inaction of regulators does not protect companies, especially when the regulators themselves warn of the dangers of nanoparticles’ largely unknown risks. Draft guidance issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration raises questions about the safety of nanoparticles and demonstrates the general lack of knowledge about the technology and its effects. (1)

Asbestos litigation is a good example of the risks that can arise from using an emerging technology before it is proven safe. Use of asbestos (a nanomaterial) has created the longest, most expensive mass tort in national history with total U.S. costs now standing at over $250 billion. (2) If companies been asked to investigate and minimize or avoid risks prior to adopting asbestos technology, a sad and expensive chapter in worker harm could have been avoided.

* Titanium dioxide is a common pigment and FDA-approved food additive. It is used as a whitener, a dispersant, and a thickener.

While I don’t particularly appreciate fear-mongering as a tactic, the strategy of targeting investors and their concerns, seems to have helped As You Sow win its way.

Nanozen: protecting us from nanoparticles (maybe)

Friday, Oct. 24, 2014 the Vancouver Sun (Canada) featured a local nanotechnology company, Nanozen in an article by ‘digital life’ writer, Gillian Shaw. Unfortunately, the article is misleading. Before noting the issues, it should be said that most reporters don’t have much time to prepare stories and are often asked to write on topics that are new or relatively unknown to them. It is a stressful position to be in especially when one is reliant on the interviewee’s expertise and agenda. As for the interviewee, sometimes scientists get excited and enthused and don’t speak with their usual caution.

The article starts off in an unexceptionable manner,

Vancouver startup Nanozen is a creating real-time, wearable particle sensor for use in mines, mills and other industrial locations where dust and other particles can lead to dangerous explosions and debilitating respiratory diseases.

The company founder and, presumably, lead researcher Winnie Chu is described as a former professor of environmental health at the University of British Columbia who has devoted herself to developing a new means of monitoring particles, in particular nanoparticles. Chu is quoted as saying this,

“The current technology is not sufficient to protect workers or the community when concentrations exceed the acceptable level,” she said.

It seems ominous and is made more so with this,

Chu said more than 90 per cent of the firefighters who responded to the 9/11 disaster developed lung disease, having walked into a site full of small and very damaging particles in the air.

“Those nanoparticles go deep into your lungs and cause inflammation and other problems,” Chu said.

It seems odd to mention this particular disaster. The lung issues for the firefighters, first responders and people living close to the site of World Trade Centers collapse are due to a complex mix of materials in the air. Most of the research I can find focuses on micrsoscale particles such as the work from the University of California at Davis’s Delta Group (Detection and Evaluation of the Long-Range Transport of Aerosols). From the Group’s World Trade Center webpage,

The fuming World Trade Center debris pile was a chemical factory that exhaled pollutants in particularly dangerous forms that could penetrate deep into the lungs of workers at Ground Zero, says a new study by UC Davis air-quality experts.

You can find the group’s presentation (-Presentation download (WTC aersols ACS 2003.ppt; 7,500kb)) to an American Chemical Society meeting in 2003 along more details such as this on their webpage,

The conditions would have been “brutal” for people working at Ground Zero without respirators and slightly less so for those working or living in immediately adjacent buildings, said the study’s lead author, Thomas Cahill, a UC Davis professor emeritus of physics and atmospheric science and research professor in engineering.

“Now that we have a model of how the debris pile worked, it gives us a much better idea of what the people working on and near the pile were actually breathing,” Cahill said. “Our first report was based on particles that we collected one mile away. This report gives a reasonable estimate of what type of pollutants were actually present at Ground Zero.

“The debris pile acted like a chemical factory. It cooked together the components of the buildings and their contents, including enormous numbers of computers, and gave off gases of toxic metals, acids and organics for at least six weeks.”

The materials found by this group were not at the nanoscale. In fact, the focus was then and subsequently on materials such as glass shards, asbestos, and metallic aerosols at the microscale, all of which can cause well documented health problems. No doubt effective monitoring would have been helpful It seems the critical issue in the early stages of the disaster was access to a respirator. Also, effective monitoring at later stages which did not seem to have happened would have been a good idea.

A 2004 (?) New York Magazine article by Jennifer Senior titled ‘Fallout‘ had this to say about the air content,

Here, today, is what we know about the dust and air at ground zero: It contained glass shards, pulverized concrete, and many carcinogens, including hundreds of thousands of pounds of asbestos, tens of thousands of pounds of lead, mercury, cadmium, dioxins, PCBs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. It also contained benzene. According to a study done by the U.S. Geological Survey, the dust was so caustic in places that its pH exceeded that of ammonia. Thomas Cahill, a scientist who analyzed the plumes from a rooftop one mile away, says that the levels of acids, insoluble particles, high-temperature organic materials, and metals were in most cases higher in very fine particles (which can slip deep into the lungs) than anyplace ever recorded on earth, including the oil fires of Kuwait.

The article describes at some length the problems for first responders and for those who later moved back into their homes nearby the disaster site under the impression the air was clean.

Getting back to the nanoscale, there were carbon nanotubes (CNTs) present as this 2009 research paper, Case Report: Lung Disease in World Trade Center Responders Exposed to Dust and Smoke: Carbon Nanotubes Found in the Lungs of World Trade Center Patients and Dust Samples, noted in relation to a sample of seven patients,

It may well be the most frequent injury pattern in exposed patients with severe respiratory impairment. b) Interstitial disease was present in four cases (Patients A, B, C, and E), characterized by a generally bronchiolocentric pattern of interstitial inflammation and fibrosis of variable severity. The lungs of these patients contained large amounts of silicates, and three of them showed nanotubes.

CNT of commercial origin, common now, would not have been present in substantial numbers in the WTC complex before the disaster in 2001. However, the high temperatures generated during the WTC disaster as a result of the combustion of fuel in the presence of carbon and metals would have been sufficient to locally generate large numbers of CNT. This scenario could have caused the generation of CNT that we have noted in the dust samples and in the lung biopsy specimens.

Given that CNTs are more common now, it would suggest that a monitor for nanoscale materials such as Chu’s proposed equipment could be an excellent idea. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what Chu is trying to achieve as she appears to make a blunder in the article,

Chu said environmental agencies require testing to distinguish between particles equal to or less than 10 microns and smaller particles 2.5 microns or less.

“When we inhale we inhale both size particles but they go into different parts of the lung,” said Chu, who said research shows the smaller the particle the higher the toxicity. [emphasis mine] The monitor she has developed can detect particles as small as one micron and even less.

The word ‘nanoparticle’ is often used generically to include, CNTs, quantum dots, silver nanoparticles, etc. as Chu seems to be doing throughout the article. The only nanomaterial/nanoparticle that researchers agree unequivocally cause lung problems are long carbon nanotubes which resemble asbestos fibres. This is precisely the opposite of Chu’s statement.

For validation, you can conduct your own search or you can check Swiss toxicologist Harald Krug’s (mentioned in my Nanosafety research: a quality control issue posting of Oct. 30, 2014) statement that most health and safety research of nanomaterials and the resultant conclusions are problematic. But he too is unequivocal with regard long carbon nanotubes (from Krug’s study, Nanosafety Research—Are We on the Right Track?).

Comparison of instillation and inhalation experiments: instillation studies have to be carried out with relatively high local doses and, thus, more often meet overload conditions than inhalation studies. Transient inflammatory effects have been observed frequently in both types of lung exposure, irrespective of the type of ENMs used for the experiment. This finding suggests an unspecific particle effect; moreover, the biological response seems to be comparable to a scenario involving exposure to fine dust. Prominent exceptions are long and rigid carbon nanotube (CNT) bundles, which induce a severe tissue reaction (chronic inflammation) that may ultimately result in tumor formation. Overall, the evaluated studies showed no indication of a “nanospecific” effect in the lung. [from the Summary section; 2nd bulleted point]

You can find the Nanozen website here but there doesn’t appear to be any information on the site yet. These search terms ‘about’, ‘team’, ‘technology’, and ‘product’ yielded no results on website as of Oct. 30, 2014 at 1000 hours PDT.

Nanotechnology analogies and policy

There’s a two part essay titled, Regulating Nanotechnology Via Analogy (part 1, Feb. 12, 2013 and part 2, Feb. 18, 2013), by Patrick McCray on his Leaping Robot blog that is well worth reading if you are interested in the impact analogies can have on policymaking.

Before launching into the analogies, here’s a bit about Patrick McCray from the Welcome page to his website, (Note: A link has been removed),

As a professor in the History Department of the University of California, Santa Barbara and a co-founder of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, my work focuses on different technological and scientific communities and their interactions with the public and policy makers. For the past ten years or so, I’ve been especially interested in the historical development of so-called “emerging technologies,” whenever they emerged.

I hope you enjoy wandering around my web site. The section of it that changes most often is my Leaping Robot blog. I update this every few weeks or so with an extended reflection or essay about science and technology, past and future.

In part 1 (Feb. 12, 2013) of the essay, McCray states (Note: Links and footnotes have been removed),

[Blogger’s note: This post is adapted from a talk I gave in March 2012 at the annual Business History Conference; it draws on research done by Roger Eardley-Pryor, an almost-finished graduate student I’m advising at UCSB [University of California at Santa Barbara], and me. I’m posting it here with his permission. This is the first of a two-part essay…some of the images come from slides we put together for the talk.]

Over the last decade, a range of actors – scientists, policy makers, and activists – have used  historical analogies to suggest different ways that risks associated with nanotechnology – especially those concerned with potential environmental implications – might be minimized. Some of these analogies make sense…others, while perhaps effective, are based on a less than ideal reading of history.

Analogies have been used before as tools to evaluate new technologies. In 1965, NASA requested comparisons between the American railroad of the 19th century and the space program. In response, MIT historian Bruce Mazlish wrote a classic article that analyzed the utility and limitations of historical analogies. Analogies, he explained, function as both model and myth. Mythically, they offer meaning and emotional security through an original archetype of familiar knowledge. Analogies also furnish models for understanding by construing either a structural or a functional relationship. As such, analogies function as devices of anticipation which what today is fashionably called “anticipatory governance.”They also can serve as a useful tool for risk experts.

McCray goes on to cover some of the early discourse on nanotechnology, the players, and early analogies. While the focus is on the US, the discourse reflects many if not all of the concerns being expressed internationally.

In part 2 posted on Feb. 18, 2013 McCray mentions four of the main analogies used with regard to nanotechnology and risk (Note: Footnotes have been removed),

Example #1 – Genetically Modified Organisms

In April 2003, Prof. Vicki Colvin testified before Congress. A chemist at Rice University, Colvin also directed that school’s Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology. This “emerging technology,” Colvin said, had a considerable “wow index.” However, Colvin warned, every promising new technology came with concerns that could drive it from “wow into yuck and ultimately into bankrupt.” To make her point, Colvin compared nanotech to recent experiences researchers and industry had experienced with genetically modified organisms. Colvin’s analogy – “wow to yuck” – made an effective sound bite. But it also conflated two very different histories of two specific emerging technologies.

While some lessons from GMOs are appropriate for controlling the development of nanotechnology, the analogy doesn’t prove watertight. Unlike GMOs, nanotechnology does not always involve biological materials. And genetic engineering in general, never enjoyed any sort of unalloyed “wow” period. There was “yuck” from the outset. Criticism accompanied GMOs from the very start. Furthermore, giant agribusiness firms prospered handsomely even after the public’s widespread negative reactions to their products.  Lastly, living organisms – especially those associated with food – designed for broad release into the environment were almost guaranteed to generate concerns and protests. Rhetorically, the GMO analogy was powerful…but a deeper analysis clearly suggests there were more differences than similarities.

McCray offers three more examples of analogies used to describe nanotechnology: asbestos, (radioactive) fallout, and Recombinant DNA which he dissects and concludes are not the best analogies to be using before offering this thought,

So — If historical analogies teach can teach us anything about the potential regulation of nano and other emerging technologies, they indicate the need to take a little risk in forming socially and politically constructed definitions of nano. These definitions should be based not just on science but rather mirror the complex and messy realm of research, policy, and application. No single analogy fits all cases but an ensemble of several (properly chosen, of course) can suggest possible regulatory options.

I recommend reading both parts of McCray’s essay in full. It’s a timely piece especially in light of a Feb. 28, 2013 article by Daniel Hurst for Australian website, theage.com.au, where a union leader raises health fears about nanotechnology by using the response to asbestos health concerns as the analogy,

Union leader Paul Howes has likened nanotechnology to asbestos, calling for more research to ease fears that the growing use of fine particles could endanger manufacturing workers.

”I don’t want to make the mistake that my predecessors made by not worrying about asbestos,” the Australian Workers Union secretary said.

I have covered the topic of carbon nanotubes and asbestos many times, one of the  latest being this Jan. 16, 2013 posting. Not all carbon nanotubes act like asbestos; the long carbon nanotubes present the problems.

The yin and the yang of carbon nanotubes and toxicity


Illustration courtesy of the University College of London (UCL). Downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0113/130115-chemistry-resolves-toxic-concerns-about-carbon-nanotubes

Illustration courtesy of the University College of London (UCL). Downloaded from http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0113/130115-chemistry-resolves-toxic-concerns-about-carbon-nanotubes

Researchers at the University College of London (UCL), France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), and Italy’s University of Trieste have determined that carbon nanotube toxicity issues can be addressed be reducing their length and treating them chemically. From the Jan. 15,2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

In a new study, published January 15 [2013] in the journal Angewandte Chemie, evidence is provided that the asbestos-like reactivity and pathogenicity reported for long, pristine nanotubes can be completely alleviated if their surface is modified and their effective length is reduced as a result of chemical treatment.

First atomically described in the 1990s, carbon nanotubes are sheets of carbon atoms rolled up into hollow tubes just a few nanometres in diameter. Engineered carbon nanotubes can be chemically modified, with the addition of chemotherapeutic drugs, fluorescent tags or nucleic acids — opening up applications in cancer and gene therapy.

Furthermore, these chemically modified carbon nanotubes can pierce the cell membrane, acting as a kind of ‘nano-needle’, allowing the possibility of efficient transport of therapeutic and diagnostic agents directly into the cytoplasm of cells.

Among their downsides however, have been concerns about their safety profile. One of the most serious concerns, highlighted in 2008, involves the carcinogenic risk from the exposure and persistence of such fibres in the body. Some studies indicate that when long untreated carbon nanotubes are injected to the abdominal cavity of mice they can induce unwanted responses resembling those associated with exposure to certain asbestos fibres.

In this paper, the authors describe two different reactions which ask if any chemical modification can render the nanotubes non-toxic. They conclude that not all chemical treatments alleviate the toxicity risks associated with the material. Only those reactions that are able to render carbon nanotubes short and stably suspended in biological fluids without aggregation are able to result in safe, risk-free material.

Here’s a citation and link for this latest  research, from the ScienceDaily news item where you can also read the lead researcher’s comments about carbon nanotubes, safety, and unreasonable proposals to halt production,

Hanene Ali-Boucetta, Antonio Nunes, Raquel Sainz, M. Antonia Herrero, Bowen Tian, Maurizio Prato, Alberto Bianco, Kostas Kostarelos. Asbestos-like Pathogenicity of Long Carbon Nanotubes Alleviated by Chemical Functionalization. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2013; DOI: 10.1002/anie.201207664

The article is behind a paywall. I have mentioned long carbon nanotubes and their resemblance to asbestos fibres in several posts. The  Oct. 26, 2009 posting [scroll down about 1/3 of the way] highlights research which took place after the study where mice had carbon nanotubes injected into their bellies; in this second piece of research they inhaled the nanotubes.

ETA Jan. 21, 2013: Dexter Johnson gives context and commentary about this latest research into long multiwalled nanotubes (MWNTs) which he sums up as the answer to this question “What if you kept the MWNTs short?”  in a Jan. 18, 2013 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website)

Health science writing? Australian writer accuses gym equipment of killing you through nanotechnology

Toby McCasker’s Sept. 30, 2012 article for news.com.au  is one of the more peculiar pieces I’ve seen about nanotechnology and its dangers. From the article,

Is gym equipment killing you?

THE nanofibres that make up sports and gym equipment just might be doing you more harm than good.

McCasker then blesses us with this wonderful, wonderful passage where he explains his concern,

Why is this (maybe) bad? Nanotechnology sounds awesome, after all. Very cyberpunk. Inject them into your dude piston and become a thrumming love-machine, all that. [emphases mine] They’re maybe bad because researchers from the University of Edinburgh in the UK have just discovered that some nanofibres bear a resemblance to asbestos fibres, which can cause lung cancer.

You can’t inject nanotechnology. Since it’s a field of study,  it would be the equivalent of injecting biology or quantum mechanics.

As for nanotechnology being cyberpunk, here’s how Cyberpunk is defined  in The Free Dictionary,

Noun   1.         cyberpunk – a programmer who breaks into computer systems in order to steal or change or destroy information as a form of cyber-terrorism

cyber-terrorist, hacker

act of terrorism, terrorism, terrorist act – the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear

coder, computer programmer, programmer, software engineer – a person who designs and writes and tests computer programs

terrorist – a radical who employs terror as a political weapon; usually organizes with other terrorists in small cells; often uses religion as a cover for terrorist activities

2.         cyberpunk – a writer of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology

author, writer – writes (books or stories or articles or the like) professionally (for pay)

3.         cyberpunk – a genre of fast-paced science fiction involving oppressive futuristic computerized societies

science fiction – literary fantasy involving the imagined impact of science on society

The closest definition that fits McCasker’s usage is this description (the passage by Lawrence Person) of cyberpunk, a post-modern science fiction genre, in Wikipedia,

Cyberpunk plots often center on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences, and megacorporations, and tend to be set in a near-future Earth, rather than the far-future settings or galactic vistas found in novels such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation or Frank Herbert’s Dune. The settings are usually post-industrial dystopias but tend to be marked by extraordinary cultural ferment and the use of technology in ways never anticipated by its creators (“the street finds its own uses for things”). Much of the genre’s atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.

“Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.” – Lawrence Person

It’s the part about “invasive modification of the human body” which seems closest to McCasker’s ” inject them into your dude piston”  (dude piston is my new favourite phrase).

As for the reference to nanofibres, McCasker is correct. There are carbon nanotubes that resemble asbestos fibres and there is concern for anyone who may ingest them. As far as I know, the people at greatest risk would be workers who are exposed to the carbon nanotubes directly. I have not heard of anyone getting sick because of their golf clubs where carbon nanotubes are often used to make them lighter and stronger.

The research (mentioned in my Aug. 22, 2012 posting)  at the University of Edinburgh that McCasker cites is important because it adds to a body of substantive research work on this issue regarding carbon nanotubes, asbestos, and the possibility of mesothelioma and bears no mention of gym equipment.

It’s the length, not the size that matters with nanofibres such as carbon nanotubes

The Aug. 22, 2012 news item on Nanowerk by way of Feedzilla features some research at the University of Edinburgh which determined that short nanofibres do not have the same effect on lung cells as longer fibres do. From the news item, here’s a description of why this research was undertaken

Nanofibres, which can be made from a range of materials including carbon, are about 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair and can reach the lung cavity when inhaled.

This may lead to a cancer known as mesothelioma, which is known to be caused by breathing in asbestos fibres, which are similar to nanofibres.

I wrote about research at Brown University which explained why some fibres get stuck in lung cells in a Sept. 22, 2011 posting titled, Why asbestos and carbon nanotubes are so dangerous to cells. The short answer is: if the tip is rounded, the cell mistakes the fibre for a sphere and, in error, it attempts to absorb it. Here’s some speculation on my part about what the results might mean (from my Sept. 22, 2011 posting),

The whole thing has me wondering about long vs. short carbon nanotubes. Does this mean that short carbon nanotubes can be ingested successfully? If so, at what point does short become too long to ingest?

The University of Edinburgh Aug. 22, 2012 news release provides answer to last year’s  speculation about length,

The University study found that lung cells were not affected by short fibres that were less than five-thousandths of a millimetre long.

However, longer fibres can reach the lung cavity, where they become stuck and cause disease.

We knew that long fibres, compared with shorter fibres, could cause tumours but until now we did not know the cut-off length at which this happened. Knowing the length beyond which the tiny fibres can cause disease is important in ensuring that safe fibres are made in the future as well as helping to understand the current risk from asbestos and other fibres, [said] Ken Donaldson, Professor of Respiratory Toxicology.

Sometimes, I surprise myself. I think I’ll take a moment to bask. … Done now!

Here’s my final thought, while this research suggests short length nanofibres won’t cause mesothelioma, this doesn’t rule out  other potential problems. So, let’s celebrate this new finding and then get back to investigating nanofibres and their impact on health.

The latest in bulletproof vests: carbon nanotubes

Amendment II; An American Combat Apparel Company as it bills itself on Facebook, is offering new bulletproof body armour utilizing RynoHide, a carbon nanotube composite. From the April 26, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

RynoHide™, the world’s first Carbon Nanotube compound for ballistic and shrapnel resistant products is now available to the personal protection equipment industry and the general public. On the cutting edge of scientific innovation, RynoHide is lighter than any other compound on the market, yet provide greater user protection from back-face deformation of projectiles. Designed to meet the needs of all military and law enforcement operations, RynoHide is also affordable for public consumers.

Here’s a 2 min. video where RynoHide’s bulletstopping capabilities are demonstrated,

Since carbon nanotubes have been compared to asbestos and there is research which indicates that they behave like asbestos fibres when inhaled (my Sept. 22, 2011 posting), I’d be a little nervous about the fibres which are spewed when the bullet hits the composite. It’s possible that these carbon nanotubes are encapsulated and are not released into the environment when a bullet or projectile hits the material but I have looked around on the Amendment II company website and was not able to find any information about safety and carbon nanotubes.

Perhaps in the excitement they forgot to include any details about the carbon nanotubes, how they are integrated into the composite, and the safety testing. The April 26, 2012 news item highlights one of the product’s big advantages,

Traditional armor is designed to stop projectiles moving thousands of feet per second from penetration and back-face deformation. Back-face deformation is the bulge that occurs in the back of the armor from a projectile hitting the front without passing completely though. Traditional armor is designed to minimize these threats by using 20 to 30 layers of a high tensile strength synthetic aramid, such as Kevlar.

The acceptable back-face deformation limit for body armor, as set by the National Institute of Justice, is 44mm, or nearly two inches. RynoHide helps body armor achieve a back-face deformation level in the low 30’s, without increasing the weight of the armor.

Less back-face deformation means less hurt on the body.

“That’s a huge advantage for the user of the armor if they get hit,” says R.G. Craig, President of Amendment II. “It could be the difference between a stay in the hospital or simply going home at the end of the day to your family.” Such protection is achieved without compromise in comfort and convenience.

The product was developed at the University of Utah’s Nano Institute in partnership with Amendment II.

Why asbestos and carbon nanotubes are so dangerous to cells

Sphere or spear? Apparently cells can’t tell that an asbestos fibre or long carbon nanotube are spears due to their rounded tips according to researchers at Brown University. From the Sept. 18, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Through molecular simulations and experiments, the team reports in Nature Nanotechnology that certain nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, enter cells tip-first and almost always at a 90-degree angle. The orientation ends up fooling the cell; by taking in the rounded tip first, the cell mistakes the particle for a sphere, rather than a long cylinder. By the time the cell realizes the material is too long to be fully ingested, it’s too late.

Here’s a representation of what the scientists mean,


Something perpendicular this way comes Cells ingest things by engulfing them. When a long perpendicular fiber comes near, the cell senses only its tip, mistakes it for a sphere, and begins engulfing something too long to handle. Credit: Gao Lab/Brown University

Here’s what happens when a cell encounters a carbon nanotube, asbestos fibre, gold nanowires, and other materials that are long and perpendicular with rounded tips,

Like asbestos fibers, commercially available carbon nanotubes and gold nanowires have rounded tips that often range from 10 to 100 nanometers in diameter. Size is important here; the diameter fits well within the cell’s parameters for what it can handle. Brushing up against the nanotube, special proteins called receptors on the cell spring into action, clustering and bending the membrane wall to wrap the cell around the nanotube tip in a sequence that the authors call “tip recognition.” As this occurs, the nanotube is tipped to a 90-degree angle, which reduces the amount of energy needed for the cell to engulf the particle.

Once the engulfing — endocytosis — begins, there is no turning back. Within minutes, the cell senses it can’t fully engulf the nanostructure and essentially dials 911. “At this stage, it’s too late,” Gao [Huajian Gao] said. “It’s in trouble and calls for help, triggering an immune response that can cause repeated inflammation.”

I gather this is the starting point for mesothelioma. Here’s a description of the process (from the Brown University Sept. 18, 2011 news release,

“We thought the tube was going to lie on the cell membrane to obtain more binding sites. However, our simulations revealed the tube steadily rotating to a high-entry degree, with its tip being fully wrapped,” said Xinghua Shi, first author on the paper who earned his doctorate at Brown and is at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. “It is counter-intuitive and is mainly due to the bending energy release as the membrane is wrapping the tube.”

Here’s a video from Brown illustrating the process,

Cells bite off more than they can chew from Brown PAUR on Vimeo.

The whole thing has me wondering about long vs. short carbon nanotubes. Does this mean that short carbon nanotubes can be ingested successfully? If so, at what point does short become too long to ingest? It doesn’t seem like my questions are going to be answered too soon since the team would like to go in this direction (from the Brown news release),

The team would like to study whether nanotubes without rounded tips — or less rigid nanomaterials such as nanoribbons — pose the same dilemma for cells.

“Interestingly, if the rounded tip of a carbon nanotube is cut off (meaning the tube is open and hollow), the tube lies on the cell membrane, instead of entering the cell at a high-degree-angle,” Shi said.

Art conservation and nanotechnology; the science of social networks; carbon nanotubes and possible mesothelioma; Eric Drexler has a few words

It looks like nanotechnology innovations in the field of art conservation may help preserve priceless works for longer and with less damage. The problem as articulated in Michael Berger’s article on Nanowerk is,

“Nowadays, one of the most important problems faced during the cleaning of works of art is the removal of organic materials, mainly acrylic polymers, applied in the past as consolidants or protective coatings,” explains Piero Baglioni, a professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence. “Unfortunately, their application induces a drastic alteration of the interfacial properties of the artwork and leads to increased degradation. These organic materials must therefore be removed.”

Baglioni and his colleagues at the University of Florence have developed “… a micro-emulsion cleaning agent that is designed to dissolve only the organic molecules on the surface of a painting …”

This is a little off Azonano’s usual beat (and mine too) but Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Army Research Laboratory is launching an interdisciplinary research center for the study of social and cognitive networks.  From the news item,

“Rensselaer offers a unique research environment to lead this important new network science center,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “We have assembled an outstanding team of researchers, and built powerful new research platforms. The team will work with one of the largest academic supercomputing centers in the world – the Rensselaer Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations – and the leading visualization and simulation capabilities within our new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. The Center for Social and Cognitive Networks will bring together our world-class scientists in the areas of computer science, cognitive science, physics, Web science, and mathematics in an unprecedented collaboration to investigate all aspects of the ever-changing and global social climate of today.”

The center will study the fundamentals of social and cognitive networks and their roles in today’s society and organizations, including the U.S. Army. The goal will be to gain a deeper understanding of these networks and build a firm scientific basis in the field of network science. The work will include research on large social networks, with a focus on networks with mobile agents. An example of a mobile agent is someone who is interacting (e.g., communicating, observing, helping, distracting, interrupting, etc.) with others while moving around the environment.

My suspicion is that the real goal for the work is to exploit the data for military advantage, if possible. Any other benefits would be incidental. Of course, a fair chunk of the technology we enjoy today (for example, tv and the internet) was investigated by the military first.

I’ve mentioned carbon nanotubes and possible toxicology before. Specifically, some carbon nanotubes resemble asbestos fibers and pilot studies have suggested they may behave the same way when ingested by one means or another  into the body. There is a new confirmation of this hypothesis with a study where mice inhaled carbon nanotubes. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Using mice in an animal model study, the researchers set out to determine what happens when multi-walled carbon nanotubes are inhaled. Specifically, researchers wanted to determine whether the nanotubes would be able to reach the pleura, which is the tissue that lines the outside of the lungs and is affected by exposure to certain types of asbestos fibers which cause the cancer mesothelioma. The researchers used inhalation exposure and found that inhaled nanotubes do reach the pleura and cause health effects.

This was one exposure and the mice recovered after three months. More studies will be needed to determine the effects of repeated exposure. This study (Inhaled Carbon Nanotubes Reach the Sub-Pleural Tissue in Mice by Dr. James Bonner, Dr. Jessica Ryman-Rasmussen, Dr. Arnold Brody, et. al.) can be found in the Oct. 25, 2009 issue of Nature Nanotechnology.

On Friday (Oct. 23, 2009) I mentioned an essay by Chris Toumey on the forthcoming 50th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s seminal talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom. Today I found a response to the essay by Eric Drexler.  From Drexler’s essay on Nanowerk,

Unfortunately, yesterday’s backward-looking guest article in Nanowerk reinforces the widespread but quite mistaken idea that my views are essentially the opposite of what I’ve stated above, and that those perverse ideas are also those of the Foresight Institute. I cannot speak for that organization, or vice versa, because I left it years ago. Contrary to what the article may suggest, I have no affiliation with the organization whatsoever. Regarding terminology, it is of course entirely appropriate to use the term “nanotechnology” to describe nanoscale technologies. The idea that there is a conflict between progress in the field and future applications of that progress is puzzling. This idea appears to stem from a strange episode that came to a head during the political push for the bill that established and funded the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, an episode in which some leading science spokesmen quite properly rejected a collection of popular fantasies, but quite improperly attributed those fantasies to me. Reading claims by confused enthusiasts and the press that “Drexler says this” or “Drexler says that” is no substitute for reading my journal articles, or the technical analysis in my book, Nanosystems, and in my MIT dissertation). The failure of these leaders to do their homework has had substantial and lingering toxic effects.

(My own focus was on the ‘origin’ story for nanotechnology and not on Drexler’s theories.) If I understand the situation rightly, much of the controversy has its roots in Drexler’s popular book, Engines of Creation. It was written over 20 years ago and struck a note which reverberates to this day. The irony is that there are writers who’d trade places with Drexler in a nano second. Imagine having that kind of impact on society and culture (in the US primarily). The downside as Drexler has discovered is that the idea or story has taken on its own life. For a similar example, take Mary Shelley’s book where Frankenstein is not the monster’s name, it’s the scientist’s name. However, the character took its own life and name.