In the wake of a new study linking “nanotechnology” to two deaths and five additional cases of lung disease, the emerging technology of the ultra-small could be in for a rough ride.  Yet the real risk is that in the rush to use or even abuse the findings, the science and it’s true relevance are overlooked.

It’s never good news when a new technology is associated with a death.

The emerging area of nanotechnology has had a fairly smooth ride so far.  Sure, there have been questions over possible new health risks associated with some of its more esoteric offerings.  But no one has actually got sick from the technology.

Until now it seems…

A new study to be published in the European Respiratory Journal describes seven cases of unusual and progressive lung disease and two deaths amongst workers at a Chinese factory, and pins the likely cause on nanoparticles—which the authors link inextricably with nanotechnology.

The study presses a number of emotional and political buttons that are likely to elevate its significance—workers died; a new class of material, already under suspicion, is implicated; and in the journal’s press release, parallels are drawn with asbestos—a material that continues to be associated with tens of thousands of deaths around the world each year.

As news coverage surrounding the study gathers momentum, there will be the temptation for opponents and proponents of nanotechnology to either parade it as proof of nanotech’s dangers, or to dismiss it as ill-conceived, flawed and irrelevant.  But either approach would be a serious mistake, and in the long term could jeopardize the safe, successful and beneficial development of nanotechnology.

For years it’s been speculated that nanotechnology-derived materials—including nanoparticles—could present new health risks.  Some materials begin to exhibit novel physical and chemical properties at the nanoscale.  Nanometer-sized particles can get to places inaccessible to larger particles.  And particle size, shape and surface area have been linked to unusual biological behavior for some materials.  Backed by an increasing number of lab studies, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the potential health impact of some nanomaterials depends on more than just chemistry.

But hard data on any actual risks associated with nanomaterials remain tantalizingly elusive.  More to the point, no one has knowingly got sick after being exposed to an engineered nanomaterial yet.  And while proactively avoiding potential nanomaterial-related risks sounds awfully laudable, industry and governments are notoriously loath to take serious action on avoiding possible dangers in the absence of actual bodies.

This presents groups advocating proactive risk management or a precautionary approach to emerging technologies with a dilemma—how do you convince decision-makers to take action before people fall ill, rather than in response to a tragedy?  To some of these groups, this new study could well be seen as just the leverage they need to press for more risk research, stronger regulation, and less rapid nanotechnology commercialization.

On the other hand, industries and governments have a vested interest in ensuring the tens of billions of dollars they have invested in nanotechnology turns a profit—financially, politically and socially.  I may be being over-cynical here, but I can’t see them passively sitting by while a study associating nanotechnology with lung disease threatens to undermine this investment.  At the very least, the scientific integrity of the new study will be examined minutely.  And if it is found wanting, the temptation will be to dismiss it as flawed and irrelevant.

Unfortunately, neither of these approaches will help avoid similar incidents occurring in the future, or support the development of safe nanotechnologies in the long run.

This new study adds to a growing body of research into the potential health impacts of nanoparticles.  Eventually, it will no doubt play a role in helping to understand and avoid the potential dangers associated with some nanomaterials under some conditions. But on its own, it is limited and incomplete.  At the end of the day, the study says little about the potential hazards of nanoparticles in general, and next to nothing about the possible dangers of nanotechnology.  If the sad deaths of the two workers and the lung disease of their five colleagues were used to press home a preordained nanotechnology agenda, it would amount to little more than a cynical misuse of the data—not a move that is likely to encourage evidence-based decisions on either workplace safety or safe nanotechnology.

Yet to dismiss the study as flawed and irrelevant would be equally foolish.  The reality is that two workers died and nanoparticles were implicated, at a time when increasing numbers of nanoparticle-containing products are entering the market.  As the details of the study become known, people are going to want to know what the findings mean for them—whether there are risks associated with emerging nanotechnologies, and what government and industry are doing about it.  If nanotech-promoters downplay or even discredit the work, the move is more likely to engender suspicion than allay fears in many quarters.  And once again, evidence-based decision-making will be in danger of being sacrificed in favor of maintaining a set agenda.

Fortunately, there is a middle way; one that hopefully the proponents and opponents of nanotechnology—and all those in between—will take.  And this is to be science-grounded yet socially responsive in how the study is assessed and acted upon.

This is not a perfect study.  There are key pieces of information missing that prevent its application to nanoparticles more generally.  Yet I believe the questions it raises on the safe development of nanotechnology transcend its limitations.  The study places emerging nanotechnologies in the spotlight, and forces consumers, developers and decision-makers to think afresh about how they might be used safely.  Irrespective of the circumstances surrounding the tragic illnesses and deaths reported, the study will prompt people to ask how safe they are while working with and using products based on nanotechnology.

And where there are no satisfactory answers, these same people are going to want to know why.

Posturing in response to the study will only alienate people and hamper progress towards the science-informed development of safe and beneficial nanotechnology.  Rather, this is a chance for everyone with an interest in safe and beneficial nanotechnologies start working together towards science-grounded progress that ultimately serves everyone’s needs.

Talking together about the way forward is a good start, but to be effective it must lead to informed actions. Given the current lack of knowledge on the potential risks of some nanomaterials, these will depend on well-funded, strategic research that addresses the many existing information gaps.  While this new knowledge is being generated—a process that could take decades—innovative new approaches will be needed for working with and using the products of nanotechnology as safely as possible.  And to cap it all, decision-makers—from manufacturers to workers to policy-makers to consumers—will need access to clear, relevant and understandable information on nanotechnologies, and what they mean to them.

Working together along these lines, the groundwork will be laid for making progress that is based on the best possible science, yet doesn’t ignore the concerns and aspirations of the people it touches.

Tragically, the lung damage experienced by the seven Chinese workers in the European Respiratory Journal study could most likely have been prevented if accepted occupational hygiene practices had been followed. Ultimately, this is a story of a human failing, not an emerging technology.  Yet it does stimulate important questions that will need addressing if the long-term benefits of nanotechnology are to be realized.  The question is, are we prepared to put aside preconceived notions and work together to find effective answers?  I hope we are.

Andrew Maynard