What will nanotechnology mean to you?

2 04 2014

A hot topic in the media right now is the toxicity of chemical flame retardants that are in our furniture and are migrating out into our environment.  Tests have shown that Americans carry much higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies than anyone else in the world, with children in California containing some of the highest levels ever tested.   According to Ronald Hites of Indiana University, these concentrations have been “exponentially increasing, with a doubling time of 4 to 5 years.”[1]  These toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home – packed into couches, chairs and many baby products including (but not limited to) mattresses, nursing pillows, carriers and changing table pads (scary!).  Recent studies have found that most couches in America have over 1 pound of the toxic chemical Chlorinated Tris inside them[2], even though it was banned in children’s pajamas over cancer concerns over a generation ago.[3]

Why the concern?  Fire retardant chemicals, called PBDE’s (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and impaired fetal brain development, as well as decreased fertility.  And even though they’ve been banned in the U.S. and European Union, they persist in the environment and accumulate in your body – and they’re still being used today.

So its probably no surprise that there is a mad scramble on to produce a fire retardant that does not impact our health or the environment.   The current front runners, touted as being “exceptionally” effective yet safer and more environmentally friendly than the current fire retardants, use nanotechnology – specifically “nanocoatings” and “nanocomposites”[4] .  These composites and coatings are based on what are called “multiwalled carbon nanotubes” or MWCNTs.

Based on a final report published by the U.S. EPA in September 2013 about the assessment of the risks of using these  MWCNTs, the EPA found that there will be releases of these MWCNTs into the environment throughout the life cycle of textiles – to our air and water during production,  in the form of abraded particles of the textiles falling into the dust in our homes, and in the disposal of furniture in municipal landfills or incineration facilities.[5]

While it is reasonable to propose that substituting nanomaterials for polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDEs)  or chlorinated triss  and calling it “sustainable”, the fact is that no quantitative study has ever been done to support this assertion . [6]

Please don’t misunderstand me – I am all for finding safer alternatives to the current crop of chemical fire retardants (assuming I buy into the argument that we actually need them).  However, I don’t want us to jump from the frying pan into the fire by rushing to use a technology which is still controversial.  But the race is on:  the US patent office published some 4000 patents under “977 – nanotechnology” in 2012, a new record.

patents nanotech

Here’s an interesting video which helps to explain how nano works – and why we will need extensive study to absorb the many implications of this emerging science.

Consider these science fiction type scenarios of how nano can be used to profoundly change our lives:

  • “nanomedicine” offers the promise of diagnosis and treatment of a disease – before you even have the symptoms.  Or it promises to rebuild neurons for people with Alzheimers or Parkinson’s disease – and stem cells for whatever ails you!   Bone regeneration.  [7]
  • Surfaces can be modified to be scratchproof, unwettable, clean or sterile, depending on the application.[8]
  • Quantum computing.
  • Solar cells capturing the sun’s visible spectrum – as well as infrared photons –  doubling the solar energy available to us.  How about zero net carbon emissions.
  • Nanoscale bits of metals can detoxify hazardous wastes.
  • Clothing that recharges your cell phone as you stroll, or an implant that measures blood pressure powered by your own heartbeat.

And yet.  The unknowns are great, and as Eric Drexler has said, the story involves a tangle of science and fiction linked with money, press coverage, Washington politics and sheer confusion.  Scientists and governments agree that the application of nanotechnology to commerce poses important potential risks to human health and the environment, and those risks are unknown. Examples of high level respected reports that express this concern include:

  • Swiss Federation (Precautionary Matrix 2008)[9]
  • Commission on Environmental Pollution (UK 2008)[10];
  • German Governmental Science Commission (“SRU”)[11];
  • Public testimony sought by USA National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, Feb 2011)[12] ;
  • OECD working group (since 2007)[13];
  • World Trade Organization (WTO)[14]
  • as well as several industrial groups and various non-governmental organizations.

Nanotechnology is already transforming many products – water treatment, pesticides, food packaging and cosmetics to name a few – so the cat is already out of the bag.  Consider this small example of the nano particle  argument:  When ingested the nanoparticles pass into the blood and lymph system, circulate throughout the body and reach potentially sensitive sites such as the spleen, brain, liver and heart.[15]   The ability of nanoparticles to cross the blood brain barrier makes them extremely useful as a way to deliver drugs directly to the brain.  On the other hand, these nanoparticles may be toxic to the brain.  We simply don’t know enough about the size and surface charge of nanoparticles to draw conclusions.[16]  In textiles, silver nano particles are used as antibacterial/antifungal agents to prevent odors.

But there are almost no publications on the effects of engineered nanoparticles on animals and plants in the environment.

So it’s still not clear what nanoscience will grow up to be – if it doesn’t kill us, it might just save us.

[2] Stapleton HM, et al. Detection of organophosphate flame retardants in furniture foam and U.S. house dust. Environ Sci Technol 43(19):7490–7495. (2009); http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/es9014019.

[3] Callahan, P and Hawthorne, M; “Chemicals in the Crib”, Chicago Tribune, December 28, 2012, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-12-28/news/ct-met-flames-test-mattress-20121228_1_tdcpp-heather-stapleton-chlorinated-tris

[5] Comprehensive Environmental Assessment Applied to Multiwalled Carbon Nanotube Flame-Retardant Coatings in Upholstery Textiles: A Case Study Presenting Priority Research Gaps for Future Risk Assessments (Final Report), Environmental Protection Agency, http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/nano/recordisplay.cfm?deid=253010

[6] Gilman,  Jeffrey W., “Sustainable Flame Retardant Nanocomposites”; National Institute of Standards and Technology

[7] Hunziker, Patrick,  “Nanomedicine: The Use of Nano-Scale Science for the Benefit of the Patient” European Foundation for Clinical Nanomedicine (CLINAM) Basel, Switzerland 2010.

[9] Swiss National Science Foundation, Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials Implementation Plan of the National Research Programme NRP 64 Berne, 6 October 2009; see also Swiss Precautionary Matrix, and documents explaining and justifying its use, available in English from the Federal Office of Public Health.

[10] Chairman: Sir John Lawton CBE, FRS Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Twenty-seventh report: Novel Materials in the Environment: The case of nanotechnology. Presented to Parliament by Command of Her Majesty November 2008.

[11] SRU, German Advisory Council on Environment, Special Report “Precautionary strategies for managing nanomaterials” Sept 2011. The German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) is empowered by the German government to make “recommendations for a responsible and precautionary development of this new technology”.

[12] See: Legal basis and justification: Niosh recommendations preventing risk from carbon nanotubes and nanofibers ”post-hearing comments Niosh current intelligence bulletin: occupational exposure to carbon nanotubes and nanofibers Docket NO. NIOSH-161 Revised 18 February 2011; Testimony on behalf of ISRA (International Safety Resources Association) Before NIOSH, USA. Comments prepared by Ilise L Feitshans JD and ScM, Geneva, Switzerland. Testimony presented by Jay Feitshans, Science Policy Analyst; ISRA Draft Document for Public Review and Comment NIOSH Current Intelligence Bulletin: Occupational Exposure to Carbon Nanotubes and Nanofibers, Docket Number NIOSH-161-A.

[13] The OECD Working Party for Manufactured Nanomaterials (WPMN) “OECD Emission Assessment for Identification of Sources of release of Airborne Manufactured Nanomaterials in the Workplace: Compilation of Existing Guidance”, ENV/JM/MONO (2009)16, http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/15/60/43289645.pdf. “OECD Preliminary Analysis of Exposure Measurement and Exposure Mitigation in Occupational Settings: Manufactured Nanomaterials” OECD ENV/JM/MONO(2009)6, 2009. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/36/36/42594202.pdf.
“OECD Comparison of Guidance on selection of skin protective equipment and respirators for use in the workplace: manufactured nanomaterials”, OECD ENV/JM/MONO(2009) 17, 2009. www.oecd.org/dataoecd/15/56/43289781.pdf.

[14] WHO Guidelines on “Protecting Workers from Potential Risks of Manufactured Nanomaterials” (WHO/NANOH), (Background paper) 2011

[15] Dixon, D., “Toxic nanoparticles might be entering human food supply, MU study finds”, August 22, 2013, http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2013/0822-toxic-nanoparticles-might-be-entering-human-food-supply-mu-study-finds/

[16] Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified health Risks (SCENIHR), The European Commission, 2006