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Facing the Dangers of Nanotech 172

bethr writes "Technology Review has a Q&A with Andrew Maynard, the science advisor for the Woodrow Wilson International Center's nanotechnology project regarding the dangers of nanomaterials and why we have to act now." From the article: "Individual experiments have indicated that if you develop materials with a nanostructure, they do behave differently in the body and in the environment. We know from animal studies that very, very fine particles, particles with high surface area, lead to a greater inflammatory response than the same amount of larger particles. We also know that they can enter the lining of the lungs and get through to the blood and enter other organs. There is some evidence that nanoparticles can move into the brain along the olfactory nerve, so this is completely circumventing the blood-brain barrier."
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Facing the Dangers of Nanotech

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  • by thrillseeker ( 518224 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:21PM (#16887574)
    ... worthy to be afraid of.
  • by gregor-e ( 136142 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:24PM (#16887646) Homepage
    Since assembly-based nano isn't anywhere near yet, whenever news articles use the term 'nano', what they really mean is something more like 'chemical' or 'molecular'. TFA is no exception, really. So when he says 'There is some evidence that nanoparticles can move into the brain along the olfactory nerve, so this is completely circumventing the blood-brain barrier.' we can easily translate this as saying 'There is some evidence that molecules can move into the brain along the olfactory nerve, so this is completely circumventing the blood-brain barrier.' Yeah, some molecules can pass the blood-brain barrier. What's his point? It's all nano-FUD, IMO.
  • More idiots (Score:2, Insightful)

    by www.sorehands.com ( 142825 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:29PM (#16887732) Homepage
    Lets see, they advocate the government looking over the shoulder and using Wikipedia to determine danger.

    First, there is a problem with governmental idiots in charge of something they don't understand.

    Two, I don't buy Wikipedia as an authoritative source. While it is source, it could be a start point, not an end point.

    And of course this would not apply to marketing hyped products -- the nano-tech car wax and nano-tech hair shampoo; Right???
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:37PM (#16887868)
    This seems to be a rising hobby, alarmism as a way of raising your personal profile. It happens every few years with each new technology, and the facts are no deterrant.

    The facts in this case are that the natural environment is FULL of nanoparticles of all sizes --- we live in a sea of them. Nature doesn't have any personal preference for particles of any given size.

    To say that something we manufacture could be dangerous is fine, but singling out nanoparticles is just plain silly. And yes, materials of all kinds change their properties depending on particle size. Again, singling out nanoparticles for this honour is more about alarmism than about objectivity.
  • by hsmith ( 818216 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:38PM (#16887884)
    If there are "dangers" associated with them, they will be PERFECT for the DoD to pickup on and investigate.

    what would be better than a bomb that goes off and you breathe in particles that can easily penetrate your organs
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:48PM (#16888026)
    What's his point? It's all nano-FUD, IMO.

    I think his point is that we are dealing with familiar materials in unfamiliar configurations. When dealing with anything unknown a certain amount of uncertainty, doubt, and yes, even fear or trepidation is called for.

    Sure you can probably get away with treating that which is unknown in a cavalier fashion, making the assumption that it is perfectly safe until otherwise demonstrated to be unsafe. But of course when approaching that which is unknown in this fashion there are always going to be the cases where things that are unsafe are not recognized as such until something bad happens.

    Maybe these things ring a bell: lead, radium, thalidomide.

    Even things which are generally recognized as safe when handled or used properly can still be unsafe when misued. I won't bother listing examples of these. Your house and surrounding environment are packed with them.
  • by adavies42 ( 746183 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:48PM (#16888028)
    Progress requires risk. Deal.
  • Two edged sword (Score:3, Insightful)

    by stox ( 131684 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:49PM (#16888040) Homepage
    For precisely the same reason that nano sized particles will be revolutionary to the world of pharmaceuticals, they may prove to be toxic in other applications.
  • Scale matters (Score:5, Insightful)

    by macklin01 ( 760841 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:50PM (#16888058) Homepage

    Nature is replete with examples where scale matters. Insect-scale airfoils don't work particularly well. Jumbo jet-scale insects wouldn't fly, either. At the molecular level, flagella give great propulsion in fluids, but the same wouldn't hold at the macroscopic level.

    The same is true in biology. I remember having read a study done at NASA on the effect of iron nanoparticles in lungs. (Alas, I can't seem to find the link anymore.) They concluded that at the nano scale, the iron particles could escape the normal protections and remain in the lungs (in the interstitium and cells themselves), where they could collect and have a toxic effect, including diminished lung function. (The test rats became lethargic, etc.) All this at exposure levels that wouldn't be considered toxic at other scales.

    I've seen similar research on sunscreen. Zinc oxide particles are great protecting at UVA and UVB. However, at large scale, they're quite visible and hard to blend in. Make them smaller, and that problem goes away, but they get absorbed deeper into the skin. Make them smaller still, and it's quite possible that they'll be absorbed into the cells themselves, leading to new potential health effects. (e.g., does zinc oxide become carcinogenic when they remain in the cells for too long? Does the motion into the cells increase the likelihood of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) accumlating inside the cells, rather than outside?)

    I'm not a biochemist or a biologist (I'm a biomathematician), so I don't have the answers to these questions. But it's clear that scale really does matter, and it needs to be considered. Is the danger overhyped? Possibly, or maybe not. That's why it needs to be studied. But it's going to be important to understand these effects when we move from the low levels that occur naturally to the high levels that will occur in human-made materials and products. -- Paul

  • Poor logic.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:55PM (#16888142) Homepage
    So essentially your argument is:

    There exists some molecules that already enter the blood-brain barrier without problems. Therefor all molecules entering the blood-brain barrier have no problems. One could prove anything (including known falsehoods) using that kind of logic.

    What I read in the article was that when we create very very fine particles out of substances they behave differently in biological organisms than they do when they aren't in very very small particles. We really have no information on how these very fine particles might behave in biological organisms, so we really should be more cautious in including them in food products, or anything else people might injest since they really haven't been tested yet.
  • by A beautiful mind ( 821714 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @02:58PM (#16888176)
    I was originally going to write a post to show that you might not be totally justified in what you're writing, but then I realised that nano is the SI prefix for 10^-9, while a hydrogen molecule is 1.06 * 10^-10m, so you might not be completely off in saying that this is nothing new, so this is one score to you.

    However, I have to mention that the size might not be the problem, but rather the properties of these nanoparticles.

    The most important thing to remember when talking about nanoparticles, is that a lot of these materials have a unique thing in common, quoth wikipedia, "vastly increased ratio of surface area to volume". Remember for example lunar dust [wikipedia.org] and the problems associated with it? Imagine that effect on a much worse level.
  • by Ken D ( 100098 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @03:00PM (#16888198)
    No, this is not FUD. Forget gasses and liquids, this is about solids. Solids come in non-molecular chunks. Out bodies (and the bodies of every other living thing out there) are accustomed to encountering solids that are in fairly large sized chunks. If you can find a way to process those solids into much smaller chunks then you have a nano-material. This is the stuff that's dangerous. It's true of non-nano tech too. For example if I had a large piece of asbestos, that's not really dangerous, but if I pulverize it into dust it is. These new nano materials open up the possibility that alot more materials could be dangerous.

    If I swallow a quarter, ....it'll pass. What if I swallowed something that contained a quarter shredded into pieces no larger than 100nm, will that pass? Or will large amounts get trapped in various nooks and corners in my guts, and what effect will it have if those bits stay there for 30 years? What if I breathe it into my lungs? Will it do something like asbestos dust?

    See http://www.kemcointernational.com/NANOPHASEAPPLICA TIONS.htm [kemcointernational.com] for cosmetics and foot powder containing Iron Oxide and Zinc Oxide nano materials that you can easily ingest or breathe.
  • Basic physics... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @03:11PM (#16888364) Homepage

    Released, this nanite could theoretically convert the earth (see "grey goo") into a giant ball of itself.

    There's this little problem with replication called "energy", and the laws of thermodynamics. Making order out of disorder requires energy to be expended. Exactly where is all the energy going to come from to turn everything into "grey goo"?
  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @03:15PM (#16888416) Homepage Journal
    A few dozen independent mechanisms that run a checksum and which work at different points in the process to prevent reproduction, sabotage reproduction, make the mutants non-viable, make the second generation sterile, etc.

    The problem is you'll probably find out that in order to keep up with rapidly mutating and adapting cancer cells, the nanites will *need* to mutate.
  • by A beautiful mind ( 821714 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @03:21PM (#16888504)
    Noone should read Michael Crichton and base scientific policy on it, most importantly because what he writes is fiction. It may a good thing for provoking some thoughts, but nothing else. Scientists taking advice from him? I would think we would know better than that to propose such thing especially after his State of Fear [wikipedia.org] (the book where he portrays global warming/climate change as fud making terrorists).

    I wouldn't take even Asimov novells as anything to be read if I would want to do science in a particular field. Fiction!=Science, no matter how good fiction it is.
  • "Nice?" (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Rob T Firefly ( 844560 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @03:27PM (#16888604) Homepage Journal
    I don't think that word means what you think it means.
  • by OldHawk777 ( 19923 ) * <adelovant&verizon,net> on Friday November 17, 2006 @03:28PM (#16888622) Journal
    I remember the 1950s, sounds like the atomic bomb again, radiation poising, evil mad science, nature-gone-wild ... sounds like more B-grade scifi movies are on their way, or the new-conservative plutocrats are justified in keep everyone from behaving responsibly by not having a gun, stem-cell, nuke .... NanNO Borg the monster was a human infected by terrorist spread necrotic-nano-bots from Mars.

    If we are going to destroy our species, I wish would just get it done. Anything is better than accepting domination by fear-mongering idiots in charge (Neo-Nazi, Neoconservative, Neo/Pseudo-Christian/Moslem/Jew ...) who are continually gucken up the world for humanity.

    Give me liberty, or give me death, from the all KnowWhatsBestForYou powerful of this world.
  • by cweber ( 34166 ) <cwebersdNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Friday November 17, 2006 @03:53PM (#16889082)
    I find your post rather callous. While you may be right that breakthroughs don't happen without associated risks and the occasional negative or outright dangerous result, I believe we've been extremely careless during the 20th century. Your Xray example is a good one. Physicists and biologists knew fairly early on Xray radiation was ionizing, but for quite some time it didn't occur to anyone to not expose themselves or others to high doses. How hard would it be to remain a bit cautious? And maybe save a few lives and make countless other better in the process.

    TFA simply advocates caution and diligent research into negative consequences of nanotech while the technology is being developed. TFA never urges abandoning anything. I agree with the author that we should keep close tabs on this stuff and watch it for long term effects.

  • by NorbrookC ( 674063 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @04:05PM (#16889248) Journal

    Is the danger overhyped? Possibly, or maybe not. That's why it needs to be studied.

    I'm old enough to remember something very similar to this back when gene splicing first became practical. Recombinant technology had a lot of hype around its promise, while at the same time there was an equal amount of hype about its dangers. Depending on which "expert" you were listening to, it was either going to solve all our problems or wipe humanity off the planet.

    The compromise was to put stringent safeguards on it. Twenty years later, we can look back and see that a lot of them were unnecessary, and that much of the hype was overblown on both sides. I think we're going to see something similar arising from nanotechnology. Yes, there's a lot of promise, and yes, there are some dangers. Until we better understand the technology, it's better to put in some safeguards, with the idea in mind that we can always relax them or tighten them.

    It's always instructive to look back, and to take some lessons from the past. Banning a technology outright because of fear doesn't work. Someone will eventually use it. At the same time, embracing a technology unreservedly also doesn't work. There are many examples of it blowing up in someone's face after-the-fact. It's not anti-technology to be aware of potential dangers and to take steps to mitigate them as you move forward. But neither should the dangers prevent you from moving forward.

  • by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @04:36PM (#16889706) Homepage

    Plants and some other critters with chlorophyll use it to create carbohydrates out of thin air (think CO2) and water.

    Exactly. And have said plants managed to convert the earth into "grey goo" yet? They've had quite a while to get really good at being efficient at using energy and matter to make themselves.

    there's a big furnace burning below ground, enough to supply the activation energy for many chemical reactions

    Ok, and once all the chemical reactions have taken place that were activated by the higher temperatures, where does the energy come from?

    The point is that simply making alarming statements about "grey goo" and runaway reactions without understanding the limiting components is silly. Any organism requires the raw materials required to build it (which atoms do you need), and the energy required to do it. If you need a bunch of iron atoms, sodium atoms, or whatever and you run out, well the replication thing is going to die out.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 17, 2006 @06:50PM (#16891340)
    Haven't we had nanotechnology for ages?


    Nanotech schmanotech. Chemistry is chemistry is chemistry. Engineers pretending to be chemists, bah!

    Don't believe me? Stick your finger in a container of 50% sodium hydroxide to see what happens, never mind that it is dissolving the glass container it is in... (a Teflon container will hold it)

    Or try ingesting 250-500 g (1-2 hits) of lysergic acid diethylamide and wait and see what happens when that gets to the brain... hehehe.

    This is not news. Chemistry has always been a dangerous field. One must be very well educated and aware to avoid injury or illness.

      "Nanotech" sounds cooler than chemistry so I guess it is news...
  • by Ash Vince ( 602485 ) on Friday November 17, 2006 @08:38PM (#16892364) Journal
    Anyone thinking of designing a nanotech weapon of this kind needs to go and read the short story by Philip K Dick called Second Variety.

If you think nobody cares if you're alive, try missing a couple of car payments. -- Earl Wilson