People breathing in nanoparticles? Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!

Admit it-deep down, your don’t really believe people will be exposed to engineered nanomaterials.  After all, most nanomaterials will be made in enclosed reactors, handled as precious commodities where not a particle can be spared, and irreversibly incorporated into a bewildering array of products.  And those that do start their life as nanoparticles will clump together in the blink of an eye, becoming nano-no-more before anyone can breathe them, touch them or (goodness forbid) eat them!

At least, that is how the argument goes.  But how much if it is based on science rather than wishful thinking?  When Washington Post science writer Rick Weiss visited a nanomaterial production plant, he expected to see a pristine high-tech workplace.  Instead, he describes passing

“…through heavy doors into the … manufacturing area and the future looks a lot like the past. Men in grease-stained blue coats navigate catwalks atop hulking, two-story-tall spray-drying machines. Forklift drivers steer 55-gallon drums of chemicals from one area to another. Other workers attend to noisy milling operations, their face masks gathering a thin film of pale dust as they empty buckets of freshly made powders to be used in nanotech batteries and premium paints”.  (Rick Weiss, Washington Post page A01, April 8, 2006)

Talk to most people actually making engineered nanomaterials, and it quickly becomes apparent that reality is a lot messier than the clean room-like future of our dreams. And this is just in the production process.  How about those products designed to go onto the body, into the body, or out into the environment as nanostructured materials?  Clearly, exposure to these materials will occur; the challenge we face is surely to snap out of denial, and start to ask what the nature of the exposures will be, and whether they will lead to harm (realizing of course that not all nanomaterials are made equal, and some may be as “safe” as the air we breathe).

This is my first foray into the “blogosphere”, courtesy of the brave souls at SAFENANO, who are under the delusion that I may have something interesting to say!  Expect an eclectic commentary on all things nano over the coming months, with an emphasis on combating speculation with science.  Getting back to the issue of exposure, this first entry is accompanied by an article on SAFENANO that addresses the “myth” of particle agglomeration.  Do you think that rapidly agglomerating airborne nanoparticles will prevent exposure?  Read the article, and think again (or at least, let me know where I’m going wrong).  Of course, predicting what might happen from established science is a form of speculation in itself, and needs to be backed up by hard evidence of exposure.  But that’s a story for another day.

And for those of you still puzzling over the title of this entry, it’s an obscure reference to the person credited with planting the idea of nanotechnology in people’s heads, who’s autobiography-which if I remember correctly says nothing about nanotechnology-was titled “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman!”.

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This entry first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in October 2007

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