Weighing the Potential Risks of Nanotech What are the potential environmental and health risks of nanotechnology? And what can be done to make sure that small tech doesn't lead to big problems?
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Weighing the Potential Risks of Nanotech

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Weighing the Potential Risks of Nanotech

Weighing the Potential Risks of Nanotech

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Last month, German regulators pulled a bathroom cleaner called Magic Nano from the market after several people complained of developing edema, that is a fluid on the lungs after using the spray cleaner. While regulators are still trying to figure out whether the Magic Nano product actually contained any nanomaterials, the recall brought a bit of attention to an aspect of nanotechnology that is not talked about very much--the safety of nanomaterials; Materials that can be measured on a billionth of a meter size scales.

What exactly do we know about the safety risks of things that are definitely nano? Such materials are cropping up in an increasing amount of places and products. We can expect to see hundreds of new products coming out over the years. Already we've got cosmetics on your face that contain nanomaterials. The wax--some of the waxes being sold now to buff your car contain nanoparticles. They are finding their way into the environment as nano waste products getting dumped. Researchers are still trying to figure out just what effect things can have on health or the environment when they are shrunk down to ultra small levels.

The nanotechnology industry certainly doesn't want a repeat of the asbestos story, when a material that was thought to be safe, and the solution to a whole rafter problems, well, eventually turned out to be tied to serious health problems; and we're still talking about it and paying for it today.

This week, the Rand Corporation released a report exploring health risks associated with the use of nanomaterials in the work place. The report said that the U.S. Government is providing insufficient funding to understand and manage risks that nanomaterials pose to the health of workers in the rapidly growing nanotechnology industry.

Joining me now to talk about the risks of nanotechnology is Kristen Kulinowksi. She's the executive director for education and public policy at the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, and director of the International Council on Nanotechnology that's based at Rice University in Houston. She joins us from the studios of KPFT in that town. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. KRISTEN KULINOWSKI (Executive Director for Education and Public Policy, The Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology; Director of the International Council on Nanotechnology, Rice University): Thanks Ira.

FLATOW: I hope I got all of that right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KULINOWSKI: Yes, you did.

FLATOW: Tell why why--why do they pose such a risk? What are the uniquely inherent in nanoparticles that make them risky?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: Well I think you're phrasing the question wrong. I don't know that we can say that nanoparticles are inherently risky. What I would say is that the size and surface chemistry of nanoparticles raises concerns that they might have unique toxicological profiles that we don't see in particles that are larger of the same chemical composition.

FLATOW: Where do they go--or where they--might they go in our bodies where other chemicals might not go that might make them risky?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: Well, that's a very good question. And I don't think we know the answer to that, fully. There are a number of studies going on right now to understand the distribution of nanoparticles in the body. But one thing I would also like to point out is that nanoparticles are being explored as medical devices. So, in a sense, we may be intentionally using them in the body to confirm medical benefit. And we also need to be cognizant as we do that, what the potential unintentional consequences of exposure to nanoparticles might be.

FLATOW: I guess we have workers that are using them every day for manufacturing.

Dr. KULINOWSKI: And I think worker safety is one of the most urgent issues in the area of nanoparticle health and safety assessment right now, today, because unlike consumers, who are probably being exposed nanoparticles in much lower levels, the people in the workplace, who are dealing with these materials in larger volumes, and on a more chronic basis, may be the first people to become affected if any health effects are, in fact, determined.

FLATOW: The Rand report said that the government has directed more than a billion dollars annually towards the development of nanotechnology, but just one percent of that, $10 million toward studying research understanding and managing the risks involved. Basically saying there's not enough money to know what's going on here.

Dr. KULINOWSKI: You know it's really hard to get a handle on these numbers, because, in our center, for example, in CBEN, we have a project that's exploring the medical uses of nanotechnology to cure cancer. And in that same project, one is looking at the benefits that are conferred by the nanotechnology, but also understanding the potential toxicology, because any drug that might result from this therapy would have to go through FDA screening and so forth. So how do you parse out what's a beneficial application aspect of the funding versus what kinds of money are being directed toward implication? Sometimes it's clear. The projects are directed exclusively at toxicology or exclusively at, let's say, an environmental mediation. And sometimes they're kind of intertwined. So getting a real good grasp of those numbers has been very challenging.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking about nanotechnology and possible risks with Dr. Kristen Kulinowski. 1-800-989-8255.

But, we don't know, you know, whether, if you breathe it in, these are tiny particles, do they go through your lungs? Can they cross the blood-brain-barrier? Things like that, do we know anything about those?

Dr. KRISTEN KULINOWSKI: We know a little bit about the effects of nanoparticles in the lung, particularly, because that's, a number of studies have been done on that. And the bottom line, I think, is that you probably don't want inorganic nanoparticles to end up in your lungs that don't have the capacity to dissolve and therefore be metabolized by your body.

But whether or not there's an exposure pathway that can bring those nanoparticles to your lung is an entirely different question. And exposure studies are lagging far behind the hazard studies, which demonstrate the risks.

So first we have to understand, are these nanoparticles going to be able to get into a form, an aerosolizable form that can be inhaled into the deep lung? And then, what is the consequence of that? So hazard and exposure are both two critical components of risk. And we don't have all the pieces yet to put the equation together.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do we know--these are so tiny, do we know if they can cross the blood-brain-barrier?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: I don't think we can say that they--that we know that actually right now. There has been a little bit of indication that they might actually damage, cause some damage to the membrane of the blood-brain-barrier, but I don't think we can say whether they do or do not cross at this point.

And if they do, maybe that means that we can target, you know, target them to treat some kind of brain disease. So we might be able to take what some might perceive as a negative implication and actually turn it to our advantage.

FLATOW: There's been some research that says it's not just the size of the particle that's important, but the surface of the nanoparticle.

Dr. KULINOWSKI: I think we're finding out that the surface chemistry of these particles is a very important factor in understanding their toxicity. Recent research that's gone on at Rice University has shown that if you change the surface of bocce ball, which is a C60 molecule, you can reduce the toxicity of that particle to cells and culture orders of magnitude. And the same result has been shown with single-wall carbon nanotubes, which are sort of in the same family as nanoparticles: carbon-based nanostructures.

FLATOW: Is there one arm of the government, the federal government, that's in charge of studying nanoparticles and regulating it?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: No. That's part of the problem--is each individual agency has a little piece of this, and each agency that has a little piece of it is struggling with how to fit nanomaterials into their existing statutory authority; and trying to understand whether these are, can be identified as new chemicals, which might trigger some regulation, or whether they should be seen as just smaller versions of the same chemicals that are already on their inventories, or that they already have a mechanism for regulating.

And so I think the federal government really needs some good information that would help them to make good decisions with respect to regulating nanoparticles.

FLATOW: So if it's nanoparticles in the workplace, you might have OSHA, if it's outside, it might be the EPA. Just split up among bailiwicks like that?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: Exactly. And then you have the FDA, of course, regulating drugs and medical devices.

FLATOW: Right. Right. And so there's no concerted effort among all of them to study nanoparticles? It's done piecemeal?

Dr. KULINOWSKI I wouldn't say there's no concerted effort. I could say there's no one single law or regulation that covers all the potential implications of nanomaterials. But that's true for any kind of chemical. That's true, in general, for regulation.

But I am aware that the federal government has cross-cutting working groups that, where all of these agencies come together and try to understand how nanomaterials might impact their ability to do their jobs to protect the public health.

FLATOW: Given the history of asbestos and other industrial products that have gone on to be--shown to be really hazardous, and basically killed an industry; wouldn't it be to the benefit of the nanoparticle industry to make sure that it, you know, that it has a track record of safety and investigating of nanoparticles?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: Absolutely. And that's actually the fundamental reason why we formed the International Council on Nanotechnology, which is a multi-stakeholder initiative joining together people from academia, where a lot of the fundamental knowledge is being created, with governments seeking to understand how to regulate, with the industry, and even some of nanotechnologies critics and others in the public interest sector, to understand how we can anticipate the potential problems and solve them; come up with risk-management strategies so we don't end up with another asbestos, another DDT, another PCB.

FLATOW: Well, if the Rand report says it's, you know, only one percent of the research is going toward health studies, whose job is it then to study the effects on people?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: I think the federal government…

FLATOW: Is it private industry or--it's the federal government. Okay.

Dr. KULINOWSKI: Well, let me finish. I think the federal government has a key role to play in funding research, and that will help them get the information they need to make their decisions. I also think the industry that bringing products to market has the fundamental responsibility of ensuring that their products are safe by doing in-house testing, and where appropriate, sharing that data with the public.

So the burden is dual. I mean, industry has to play its piece, and government has to play its role. I think the Magic Nano story showed us even if there's no nanoparticles in that product, or no nanomaterials in that product, that corporations bringing products to market have a responsibility to ensure those products are safe as formulated, before they go to market.

FLATOW: Let's go to--let's go to--where are we going to go? Let's go to Jeffrey (ph) in Delta, Colorado.

Hi Jeff.

JEFF (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me?

FLATOW: Oh, just like in the commercial. Go ahead.

JEFF: Okay. I know that nanomaterials are being used in dental work and dental restoration and stuff like that, and I wonder if there's any information or anybody has done any examination of what the effects of that might be in terms of hazards or possible dangers down the road with that?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: That's a good question. That raises the question of whether the gut, the digestive tract would be a mechanism, a root of exposure that has not really been considered. The primary roots of exposure, that I'm aware of that are under investigation, are inhalation, dermal penetration, penetration through the eye, and so forth. So, it would be interesting to see whether anyone, I'm not aware of anyone particularly working on the ingestion question, but it's been raised as a potential…

JEFF: Yeah, because any substances that would be in your mouth are possibly being exposed to pressure and saliva, and I would think that there might be some kind of volitization or something that goes on with that.

Dr. KULINOWSKI: Well, there might be a mechanical grinding that could loosen the nanoparticles from the composite filling. I'm speculating here. I should stop.

FLATOW: Thanks Jeffrey. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about nanotechnology and the possible health effects with Kristen Kulinowski on TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Of course they--speaking of your face, they are showing up in many cosmetics these days, are they not?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: Yes, I think there's an inventory at the Wilson Center that catalogues products that manufactures claim have nanomaterials in them, and there are several skincare products in that inventory.

FLATOW: What are the differences in the risks posed by someone who works, who puts something, let's say, a product on their face, in their mouth, or in their car wax that they're breathing over, and somebody who works in a factory who's actually manufacturing the nanoparticles?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: The question is, is there a potential for exposure? And how much is one being exposed to? And then, what is the effect of that exposure? So it's really not easy to answer that question, specifically because it's a very broad question and we have to make sure that we understand that nanomaterials, as a class of materials, are extremely broad. And one can't say, in general, this or that about nanomaterials.

One has to focus really on a case by case basis until we, as a scientific community, can come up with some general conclusions that say, these types of nanoparticles might best be used in these applications where they not dispersed, say, bound up in a balling ball, which is a very different prospect then put into a face cream or a suntan lotion. And these nanoparticles seem to be fairly benign as formulated, and so maybe we can use them in a wider variety of dispersive applications.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Michelle(ph), in New York. Hi Michelle.

MICHELLE (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. My main concern is really back to the ecological question, environment. Like you said before, substances that we seem to be using for the benefit of industry, technology, but we're taking such little interest beforehand in the ecological and, you know, health damage possibly that may come from it. I'm wondering, like, how many times do we have to do that before we learn that we really need to do research and development first?

And really, the question that I have is does that--has anyone looked at the ecological, sort of, bio-systems end, where this may be able to take care of itself, or will it stay stuck like PCBs? And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

FLATOW: Okay. Yeah, what happens to the particles when they get into the environment? Can they get into the air and water, you know?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: That's a very good question. And, in fact, that's one of the primary research focuses of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, CBEN, which I'm involved with. And some of the projects that's we're working on, what is called the fate transport and transformation of nanomaterials in the environment. And so we're interested in understanding, can these nanomaterials absorb pollutants onto their surface and then perhaps transport them in places where we wouldn't expect to find them? Can they impact microbial life, which is at the base of the food chain, which would have ripple effects, up--up the ladder, if you will?

And also, on the positive side, can we harness the unique properties of nanomaterials to clean up ground water through, for example, photo catalytic transformations of bimetallic nanoparticles in polluted ground water. So there are two sides of this coin here that we're constantly balancing within our center and as a scientific community, to understand if there is an impact, is it going to be negative or can we harness this for good?

FLATOW: Let me get one quick question from Frank(ph) in Kansas City. Hi Frank. Quickly.

FRANK (Caller): Thank you so much. I run a security company, and we just all ordered 200 shirts that are called tex-tropical(ph) nano-dry shirts. Are they dangerous?

Dr. KULINOWSKI: I don't think so. I actually bought my husband and father some nano-care chinos, and they're still alive and kicking.

FRANK: So you think they're okay?

FLATOW: Check back in ten years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANK: That's a big relief. Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, we don't know what the long-term effects of these things are yet, do we? I mean it hasn't been out long enough.

Dr. KULINOWSKI: There are some nanoparticles that have been in commerce for a long time. They may not have been identified as nano. Right now, we're attaching a label to something that, in some cases, is new, like the bocce balls and the single-wall nanotubes and so forth; and in some cases they're just extensions of what's been used before.

So again, we can't make any, really broad, general conclusions about a whole class of nanoparticles. It's not even clear to me that there are--would be any nanoparticles in this gentleman's clothing, for example. It might be that the fabric has been nano-structured in a unique way to reduce or repel water-based stains, like the nano-care chinos, for example; which, by the way, is not a product endorsement.

FLATOW: Nano. The word nano is hot.


FLATOW: Oh, nano is a hot word and you want to use it wherever you can, even though you may not have any nanoparticles in it. All right.

We've run out of time. Thanks very much, Dr. Kulinowski, for joining us.

Dr. KULINOWSKI: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Kristen Kulinowski, she's the executive director for education and public policy at the Center for Biological and Environmental nanotechnology, and director of the International Council on Nanotechnology that is based at Rice University in Houston.

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