I have on my desk a plastic bag of carbon nanotubes—2 grams of dry, 60% purity single walled carbon nanotubes to be precise—bought from Cheap Tubes Inc. for the princely sum of $80. And I am wondering what to do with them.
Despite the cosy assurances of the Manufacturers Safety Data Sheet that these are no more harmful than pencil lead, current research—which is admittedly sparse—is not so certain. It seems that these thin long fibres can behave in rather unique ways, and not all of them are healthy. So I am left with a dilemma: Should I open the bag or not? Should I put the nanotubes out with the rest of the office rubbish, or should I pour them down the sink? Or perhaps I should get rid of them the way they came—in a United States Postal Service envelope (unmarked). (I should note here that the Wilson Center is a policy organization, and isn’t well equipped to deal with hazardous waste).
The problem is, this is a product that anyone can buy, but there is little or no understanding of how to use and dispose of it safely. I raised this concern at last week’s hearing of the United States Congress’ House Committee on Science and Technology, where I was testifying on nanotechnology environment, health and safety (EHS) research. But in the course of the meeting, I was told that my fears are unfounded, and that the government has everything under control.
According to Floyd Kvamme, a venture capitalist and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), research is showing that nanomaterials are safe—nanoparticles don’t affect soil, carbon nanotubes injected into the blood are filtered out by the liver, and nanodiamonds are great for delivering drugs.
It did strike me that the examples he cited might have been cherry-picked from the two thousand plus published studies on nanomaterial safety—studies that raise red flags on carbon nanotubes and other nanomaterials in the lungs; that suggest some nanomaterials might interfere with DNA and other proteins; that demonstrate nanoscale materials can get to places in the body other materials cannot; and that indicate particle size-related environmental impacts.
But then I thought: don’t be daft—this guy is a science advisor to the President of the United States!
Of course, the primary challenge is not to understand the risks of nanotechnology, but to develop products that are profitable—getting the “benefit-to-risk ratio” right in Mr. Kvamme’s words. And here, his message was loud and clear: invest in the applications, and the risks will take care of themselves.
The only problem is, I still have these carbon nanotubes, and don’t know what to do with them…
This entry first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in November 2007