Nanotech risk concerns ‘must be addressed’

SEM micrograph of carbon nanotube bundles (false colour added) Copyright: Flickr/_mattxb

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[BARCELONA] Researchers must address the lack of knowledge about risks posed by nanotechnology in the health sector to provide appropriate input to policymakers, cautions a leading expert of the European Commission.

More risk assessment studies are needed to understand what exactly defines toxicity due to nanoparticles, and what kind of regulations the sector needs, said Hermann Stamm, head of nanotechnology and molecular imaging at the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection in the European Commission’s Joint Research Council.

Speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona this week (20 July), Stamm said concern over possible health risks due to nano-sized particles arises from several studies that found a link between ultra-fine particles from exhaust engines and air pollution to lung cancers and heart disease.

Nanotechnology — the use of particles as small as one-billionth of a metre — holds tremendous potential for the health sector, particularly in drug delivery.

Developing countries are keen to use nanotechnology in healthcare and agriculture. India, for example, in 2007 launched a US$225 million programme for nanoscience and technology.

Policymakers face several challenges including high expectations of nanotechnology’s potential contribution to economic growth, creation of new jobs and social welfare, the extensive range of science disciplines that could be engaged in nanotechnology and its diverse applications.

Stamm said the general public has varying concerns over the technology and little trust in industrial risk managers and government regulators.

Sound research data is required to help policymakers decide whether further changes are needed, says Stamm. He adds that specific concerns arise about unknown toxicity of engineered nanomaterials and whether current laws can address them.

Speaking at the forum, Ken Donaldson, professor of respiratory toxicology at the Queens’ Medical Research Institute, Scotland, cautioned that nanoparticles are a cause for concern because of animal studies showing possible links to cancer, a tendency to aggregate in organs and ability to spread.

In May, Donaldson and colleagues reported in Nature Nanotechnology that carbon nanotubes, tiny needle-shaped fibres of carbon, can lead to a form of lung cancer caused by asbestos in mice.

Their paper observed that research and business communities continued to invest heavily in carbon nanotubes for a wide range of products under the assumption that they are as safe as graphite.

They called for more research before the introduction of carbon nanotube products in the market if long-term adverse effects are to be avoided.