Safety ignored in nanotech rush, warn experts

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

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[NEW DELHI] Developing countries have embarked on a nanotechnology spree in the absence of health and safety guidelines, experts have cautioned.

Countries including China, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam are intensively seeking to commercialise nanotechnology.

But unlike the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — which have taken public concerns on board and developed preliminary guidance documents on the use of the technology — developing countries are not engaging in public discourse, said experts at a workshop on nanotechnology governance and regulation held in Delhi, India, last week (8 January).

The workshop, supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), focused on India but participants said that the situation was similar in most developing countries engaged in nanotechnology research.

In the absence of regulation "it is a free for all", said Alok Dhawan, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research.

In India the government is spending over 300 million Indian rupees (US$6 million) each year on nanotechnology research, a nanotechnology conference heard last week.

Meanwhile, technology for making water filters using nanomaterials for better absorption of contaminants has been taken up by several firms. Advertisements promote shirts made from nanofibres and washing machines that use nanomaterial-coated components to better remove dirt and stains.

"It turns out none of the companies has performed any toxicology tests," said Dhawan, because there is no stipulation that they should do so.

In August 2009, the European Respiratory Journal published a report on a group of Chinese workers who developed severe lung damage after exposure to nanoparticles. The study fuelled debate over nanotechnology’s health risks, with some arguing that the study did not conclusively show that nanoparticles were to blame (see Nanoparticles killed women, study claims).

Nevertheless several key questions remain including what happens to nanoparticles once inside the body; whether they remain embedded or move freely; what kind of immune or inflammatory response they elicit; and whether their concentration affects their activity inside the body.

"All these are big black boxes," said Rajiv Saxena, a professor at the school of life sciences at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

"These gaps pose several challenges to developing a regulatory framework," said Shantikumar Nair, head of the Amrita Center for Nanosciences (ACNS) in India. He said that "there is a critical need for a database on toxicity and a regulatory framework for nanomaterial use, handling and disposal".

The workshops concluded that the most urgent priorities for India were to establish a database and guidelines.

The behaviour of a nanomaterial varies according to size, shape, surface area and chemistryof each and an exhaustive database is needed to determine the risk benefit ratio in each case, said Nair.