A Little Risky Business

Publication: The Economist


11/22/2007 - Waving a packet of carbon nanotubes accusingly at the assembled American politicians during a hearing last month in Congress, Andrew Maynard was determined to make a point. The nanotechnology expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC, had bought the tiny tubes on the internet. They had arrived in the post along with a safety sheet describing them as graphite and thus requiring no special precautions beyond those needed for a nuisance dust.

Dr Maynard's theatrics were designed to draw attention to a growing concern about the safety of nanotechnology. The advice he had received was at best uncertain, and at worst breathtakingly negligent. For a start, describing carbon nanotubes as graphite was rather like describing a lump of coal as a diamond. Graphite is made of carbon, just like the nanotubes, although the tubes themselves are about 1m times smaller than the graphite that makes up the “lead” in a pencil. Carbon nanotubes may be perfectly safe, but then again, they may have asbestos-like properties. Nobody knows. Indeed, industry, regulators and governments know little about the general safety of all manner of materials that are made into fantastically small sizes.

This lack of knowledge is so great that research can paradoxically add to the problem. Vicki Colvin, a professor of chemistry at Rice University in Texas and one of the world's leading experts in nanotechnology-risk research, told the same hearing: “If you fund five teams to understand nanotube toxicity, and they get five different answers, your research investment hurts you, because it creates uncertainty. The bad news is that we have way over five different opinions about carbon-nanotube toxicity right now.”

Read the full article A Little Risky Business on The Economist Web site.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies on PewHealth.org.

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