The Jan. 16, 2013 Orion magazine podcast discussion (more about that later) regarding safety and engineered and natural nanoparticles arose from an article (worth reading) by Heather Millar in the magazine’s January/February 2013 issue, Pandora’s Boxes.
For anyone familiar with the term ‘Pandora’s box’, Millar’s and the magazine’s bias is made clear immediately, nanoparticles are small and threatening. From the Pandora’s box Wikipedia essay,
Today, the phrase “to open Pandora’s box” means to perform an action that may seem small or innocuous, but that turns out to have severe and far-reaching consequences. [emphases mine]
Millar’s article is well written and offers some excellent explanations. For example, there’s this from Pandora’s Boxes,
So chemistry and physics work differently if you’re a nanoparticle. You’re not as small as an atom or a molecule, but you’re also not even as big as a cell, so you’re definitely not of the macro world either. You exist in an undiscovered country somewhere between the molecular and the macroscopic. Here, the laws of the very small (quantum mechanics) merge quirkily with the laws of the very large (classical physics). Some say nanomaterials bring a third dimension to chemistry’s periodic table, because at the nano scale, long-established rules and groupings don’t necessarily hold up.
Then, she has some dodgier material,
Yet size seems to be a double-edged sword in the nanoverse. Because nanoparticles are so small, they can slip past the body’s various barriers: skin, the blood-brain barrier, the lining of the gut and airways. Once inside, these tiny particles can bind to many things. They seem to build up over time, especially in the brain. Some cause inflammation and cell damage. Preliminary research shows this can harm the organs of lab animals, though the results of some of these studies are a matter of debate.
Some published research has shown that inhaled nanoparticles actually become more toxic as they get smaller. Nano–titanium dioxide, one of the most commonly used nanoparticles (Pop-Tarts, sunblock), has been shown to damage DNA in animals and prematurely corrode metals. Carbon nanotubes seem to penetrate lungs even more deeply than asbestos. [emphases mine]
I think it’s worth ‘unpacking’ these two paragraphs, so here goes. Slipping past the body’s barriers is a lot more difficult than Millar suggests in the first paragraph. My July 4, 2012 posting on breakthough research where they penetrated the skin barrier includes this comment from me,
After all the concerns about nanosunscreens and nanoparticles penetrating the skin raised by civil society groups, the Friends of the Earth in particular, it’s interesting to note that doctors and scientists consider penetration of the skin barrier to be extremely difficult. Of course, they seem to have solved [as of July 2012] that problem which means the chorus of concerns may rise to new heights.
I had a followup in my Oct.3, 2012 posting titled, Can nanoparticles pass through the skin or not?, suggesting there’s still a lot of confusion about this topic even within the scientific community.
Moving on to the other ‘breaches’. As I recall, there was a recent (Autumn 2012?) nanomedicine research announcement that the blood-brain barrier was breached by nanoparticles. I haven’t yet encountered any mention of breaching the gut and I mention lungs in my next paragraph where I discuss carbon nanotubes.
As for that second paragraph, it’s an example of scaremongering. ‘Inhaled nanoparticles become more toxic as their size decreases’—ok. Why mention nano-titanium oxide in pop tarts and sunblocks, which are not inhaled, in the followup sentence? As for the reference to DNA damage and corroded metals further on, this is straight out of the Friends of the Earth literature which often cites research in a misleading fashion including those two pieces. There is research supporting part of Millar’s statement about carbon nanotubes—provided they are long and multiwalled. In fact, as they get shorter, the resemblance to asbestos fibers in the lungs or elsewhere seems to disappear as per my Aug 22, 2012 posting and my Jan. 16, 2013 posting.
You don’t need to read the article before listening to the fascinating Jan. 16, 2013 Orion magazine podcast with Millar (reading portions of her article) and expert guests, Mark Wiesner from Duke University and director of their Center for Environmental Implications of Nano Technology (CEINT was first mentioned in my April 15, 2011 posting), Ronald Sandler from Northeastern University and author of Nanotechnology: The Social And Ethical Issues, and Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the International Center for Technology Assessment.
The discussion between Wiesner, Sandler, and Hanson about engineered and natural nanoparticles is why I’ve called the podcast fascinating. Hearing these experts ‘fence’ with each other highlights the complexities and subtleties inherent in discussions about emerging technologies (nano or other) and risk. Millar did not participate in that aspect of the conversation and I imagine that’s due to the fact that she has only been researching this area for six months while the other speakers all have several years worth experience individually and, I suspect, may have debated each other previously.
At the risk of enthusing too much about naturally occurring nanoparticles, I’m mentioning, again (my Feb. 1, 2013 posting), the recently published book by Nanowiki, Nanoparticles Before Nanotechnology, in the context of the stunning visual images used to illustrate the book. I commented previously about them and Victor Puntes of the Inorganic Nanoparticles Group at the Catalan Institute of Nanotechnology (ICN) and one of the creators of this imagery, kindly directed me to a machinima piece (derived from the NanoBosc Second Life community) which is the source for the imagery. Here it is,