Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Nanotechnology and Your Health

When making public presentations on nanotechnology applications and commercialization, I am often asked about regulatory issues, potential health effects, and environmental impacts of nanotechnology.  This topic was recently covered in the April 2010 session of the CDC’s Public Health Grand Rounds titled “Preventing Adverse Health Effects from Nanotechnology."  The Grand Rounds is a monthly seminar series devoted to education and discussion of public health issues, with highlights of current research and suggestions for future work.

This program is a good primer on the subject matter and includes input from NIH and academic researchers, including Georgia Tech’s Prof. Bill Hunt.  I was a bit surprised during the question/answer session when several physicians and public health professionals thanked the speakers for educating them, with the implication that they were not familiar with some of the basic information on nanotechnology.  I guess it is an occupational hazard (not one requiring regulations) that you tend to think others are familiar with your own field of study.

It was also a reminder for me that current commercial products with nanotechnology components, and the components themselves, are already covered by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, albeit for “fine analogues”.  For example, carbon nanotubes are regulated as fine graphite, while the EPA’s rules about pesticides govern products containing nanosilver that claim antimicrobial properties.  As the video makes clear, this is a stop-gap approach, which does not effectively address the fact that the physical properties, environmental fate, and toxicology of nanomaterials can be quite different from their parent materials.  Various NIH centers, and many others within the National Nanotechnology Initiative, have devoted resources (limited as they may be) to studying environmental and health impacts.  In particular, I want to mention the GoodNanoGuide which is an international collaboration to develop best practices for occupational handling of nanoscale material.

Finally, I believe an important distinction was omitted during the discussion.  It is agreed that deleterious effects of nanotechnology could occur because some nanoparticles have the potential to interact negatively with cells and tissues within the human body when inhaled, ingested, or exposed directly to skin.  However, this is not the entirety of nanotechnology research and commercial efforts.  In fact, the majority of research at the NRC and within the facilities associated with the NNIN is based on top-down (as opposed to bottom-up) approaches for the creation of nanoscale enabled or enhanced electronic, optical, or mechanical devices.  Since the nanoscale components and materials are formed and contained within the fabricated object, with normal use such devices do not pose the same risks as particulate nanomaterials.

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