Category: Nanotechnology

Single walled carbon nanotubes

Just a few years ago, carbon nanotubes were front and center of discussions around the safety of engineered nanomaterials.  These days, not so much. So what happened?  Did we do the science and discover that they’re just as safe as any other form of carbon? Or did they simply slip off the safety radar? In this month’s edition of the Journal Nature Nanotechnology, I take a look at where the state of the science is. And the verdict?  Used responsibly, the health risks of carbon nanotubes can be reduced.  But this remains a material that could cause substantial problems in the wrong hands. The article can be accessed in full from the link below if you are in the US (if you hit a paywall and would like to read it, let me know). Are we ready for spray-on carbon nanotubes? As artists and manufacturers explore the use of spray-on carbon nanotube coatings, Andrew D. Maynard explores the state of the science around nanotube safety. Nature Nanotechnology 11, 490-491, 2016. DOI: 10.1038/nnano.2016.99 From the article: “[in 2015] Günter Oberdörster and co-authors published what is possibly the most comprehensive review of carbon nanotube toxicology studies to date. Focusing on inhalation of nanotubes, they document evidence of transient pulmonary inflammation, and rapid and persistent development of granulomatous lesions and interstitial fibrosis on exposure to single- and multiwalled carbon nanotubesin rodents. They cite data indicating that inhaled long and thin multiwalled carbon nanotubes can move to the lining surrounding the lungs and penetrate it, where they can potentially cause mesothelioma. Furthermore, the authors indicate that carbon nanotubes can act as a cancer promoter — with inhalation increasing the probability of developing lung cancer from exposure to other carcinogens.” There’s a lot more in the article, but the bottom line is that the current sate of the science indicates that, if

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Nanoparticles in baby formula

There’s a lot of stuff you’d expect to find in baby formula: proteins, carbs, vitamins, essential minerals. But parents probably wouldn’t anticipate finding extremely small, needle-like particles. Yet this is exactly what a team of scientists here at Arizona State University recently discovered. The research, commissioned and published by Friends of the Earth (FoE) – an environmental advocacy group – analyzed six commonly available off-the-shelf baby formulas (liquid and powder) and found nanometer-scale needle-like particles in three of them. The particles were made of hydroxyapatite – a poorly soluble calcium-rich mineral. Manufacturers use it to regulate acidity in some foods, and it’s also available as a dietary supplement. Needle-like particles of hydroxyapatite found in infant formula by ASU researchers. Westerhoff and Schoepf/ASU, CC BY-ND Looking at these particles at super-high magnification, it’s hard not to feel a little anxious about feeding them to a baby. They appear sharp and dangerous – not the sort of thing that has any place around infants. And they are “nanoparticles” – a family of ultra-small particles that have been raising safety concerns within the scientific community and elsewhere for some years. For all these reasons, questions like “should infants be ingesting them?” make a lot of sense. However, as is so often the case, the answers are not quite so straightforward. What are these tiny needles? Calcium is an essential part of a growing infant’s diet, and is a legally required component in formula. But not necessarily in the form of hydroxyapatite nanoparticles. Hydroxyapatite is a tough, durable mineral. It’s naturally made in our bodies as an essential part of bones and teeth – it’s what makes them so strong. So it’s tempting to assume the substance is safe to eat. But just because our bones and teeth are made of the mineral doesn’t

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image-20160328-17824-d98u5v

Back in 2008, carbon nanotubes – exceptionally fine tubes made up of carbon atoms – were making headlines. A new study from the U.K. had just shown that, under some conditions, these long, slender fiber-like tubes could cause harm in mice in the same way that some asbestos fibers do. As a collaborator in that study, I was at the time heavily involved in exploring the risks and benefits of novel nanoscale materials. Back then, there was intense interest in understanding how materials like this could be dangerous, and how they might be made safer. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when carbon nanotubes were in the news again, but for a very different reason. This time, there was outrage not over potential risks, but because the artist Anish Kapoor had been given exclusive rights to a carbon nanotube-based pigment – claimed to be one of the blackest pigments ever made. The worries that even nanotech proponents had in the early 2000s about possible health and environmental risks – and their impact on investor and consumer confidence – seem to have evaporated. So what’s changed? Artist Anish Kapoor is known for the rich pigments he uses in his work. Andrew Winning/Reuters Carbon nanotube concerns, or lack thereof The pigment at the center of the Kapoor story is a material called Vantablack S-VIS, developed by the British company Surrey NanoSystems. It’s a carbon nanotube-based spray paint so black that surfaces coated with it reflect next to no light. The original Vantablack was a specialty carbon nanotube coating designed for use in space, to reduce the amount of stray light entering space-based optical instruments. It was this far remove from any people that made Vantablack seem pretty safe. Whatever its toxicity, the chances of it getting into someone’s body were vanishingly

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Are you breathing carbon nanotubes and should you be worried

For over two decades, carbon nanotubes have been attracting attention.  First, they were seen as a super-strong, super-conductive new form of carbon that could potentially revolutionize everything from space travel to drug delivery.  Later, concerns were raised that these long, thin, fiber-like materials might cause or exacerbate lung diseases if inhaled. Now, a new study in the journal EBioMedicine has suggested that these microscopic carbon fibers are ubiquitous in the air many of us breathe every day.  And the obvious question that results is: should you be worried? The new paper – a collaboration between scientists in Paris in France, and Texas in the US – analyzed carbon particles found in lung fluid samples from 64 asthmatic children living in Paris.  Using high resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), they found carbon nanotube-like fibers in each sample.  Similar fibers were found in lung cells from five patients, and dust samples taken from deposits around vehicle tailpipes, and inside buildings close to minor roads. The authors concluded that carbon nanotube are the main component of inhaled particulate matter. At first blush, the paper seems alarming – carbon nanotubes that could be harmful were found in the lungs of children with a lung condition.  However – as the authors acknowledge in the paper – the results, while interesting, don’t provide evidence that these exposures are a health risk. To start with, it wasn’t too surprising that some fibrous carbon-based particle were found in the samples.  Research over the past ten years has indicated that carbon nanotube-like particles are incidentally formed as a by-product in a number of high temperature processes.  In 2006 for instance, Murr and Guerrero found multiwalled carbon nanotubes in soot collected from burning pine wood.  And in 2013, Jung and colleagues found carbon nanotubes amongst diesel exhaust particles under controlled

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Reporters- don't do this to scientists

Update 9:47  PM Sept 17.  It turns out that the reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald didn’t receive the three emails I sent on the 15th, and therefore did not realize that I had responded.  We have since exchanged emails, and the SMH article has updated to remove the statement that I wasn’t available for comment.  Bottom line – if things get messy, reporters, please do do this, and thanks to SMH and the article’s writer for responding positively.   Effective science reporting depends on a relationship of trust between journalists and scientists. Breach that trust, and effective reporting and science communication suffer. Journalists need to know they can call on scientists to provide accurate, understandable, and often rapid, information on topics.  Scientists need to know their help and input will be used with respect and honesty.  Without trust on both sides, things get messy fast. This morning, my name appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.  But not against a quote or as a source. Instead, this is what I read: “Fairfax Media contacted … leading risk expert Professor Andrew Maynard at the University of Michigan. They were not available for comment.” Where an organization or person is being held accountable for their actions in an article, it’s sometimes necessary to state when they weren’t available for comment – it establishes due diligence on the reporter’s end, and makes a strong statement abut the stance and attitude of the organization/person under scrutiny. Experts who are approached for further insight, context, or background information on a piece are different. Scientists work with reporters for a number of reasons.  Most often though, they do so because of a personal and professional sense of responsibility to help people understand their worlds through the lens of science. If, as a reporter, you call out a scientist for not commenting on something, you erode the implicit relationship

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For tech innovation to succeed, we need parallel innovation in how we think about risk

In October 2014, Google announced it was working on an innovative nanotechnology-based approach to avoiding and managing disease. The idea was to create a pill that would deliver magnetic, functionalized nanoparticles from the gut to the bloodstream. Once there, they would circulate — presumably for days, or longer — picking up biomarkers of disease along the way. The particles would then be remotely interrogated directly by the patient, perhaps using a wrist-mounted monitor. In effect, the plan was to create the ultimate in wearable tech: a personal device that could give you up-to-the-minute information on health and wellness, much as wrist-worn devices provide feedback on fitness today. Google’s nanosensor concept is certainly audacious. Its success though will depend on overcoming a number of challenges — not least, addressing potential risks. Based on what is currently known about nanoparticle behaviour, the technology faces a plethora of possible health and environmental challenges. Failure to address these could leave the company with a non-starter on its hands. Yet the probability of causing harm is not the only risk that could prevent these nanosensors from becoming a reality. In the expanded list of potential risks, there is also the chance of outmoded or overly restrictive regulations blocking progress; or the possibility of investor ambivalence, consumer suspicion, or social media backlash. These hint at a much larger and murkier risk landscape that emerging technologies will have to navigate to be successful. Google’s nanoparticle sensors are indicative of a growing number of technologies that are facing increasingly complex risk-related challenges. Recently, the Future of Life Institute awarded close to US$7 million for research aimed at ensuring the robust and beneficial development of artificial intelligence — funding prompted by how unexpected risks could undermine the technology’s development. Earlier this year, published research into using the gene-editing technique

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Characterizing nanoparticles in the 1880s

On May 29th, there were 52,000 nanoparticles per cubic centimeter of air measured at the top of the Eiffel Tower. This may not seem the most compelling opening to an article, until you realize that the measurement was made in 1889 – over 100 years before nanotechnology and nanoparticles began hitting headlines as one of the most talked about emerging technologies in recent decades. The particles were measured by the Scottish scientist John Aitken, using his newly developed device for counting airborne dust particles.

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Step by step guide to making a Risk Bites video

Just for the fun of it, I decided to live-tweet the making of the previous Risk Bites video (Five things worth knowing about nanoparticles and sunscreens – posted June 15 2014). [View the story “Making a Risk Bites video” on Storify] The whole six and a half hours from finalizing the script to posting the finished video can be relived at Storify – https://storify.com/2020science/making-a-risk-bites-video

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On Monday, the National Institute for Occupational Safety released new data on the potential role multi-walled carbon nanotubes play as a cancer-promoter – a substance that promotes the development of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen.  In the study, mice were injected with methylcholanthrene – a cancer initiating agent – and subsequently exposed to airborne multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Compared to a control group, the methylcholanthrene and carbon nanotube-exposed mice were significantly more likely to develop tumors than a control group, developed more tumors, and developed larger tumors.  The study provides a strong indication that this particular form of carbon nanotube material can synergistically increase the likelihood and severity of cancer in the presence of a carcinogen.

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A few weeks ago I was asked to give a “TED style talk” on nanotechnology for the University of Michigan Environmental Health Sciences department 125th anniversary.  What they got was a short talk on “thinking small”: The other talks in the series are also worth checking out – covering topics as diverse as epigenetics, cancer, exposure science, obesity, endocrine disruptors, global health and mercury in the environment.  Watch them here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLF87730C0E0C26FEA

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TEM images of carbon particles from foods containing caramelized sugar. Click to see larger image. Source: Palashudding et al. Nanotechnology leads to novel materials, new exposures and potentially unique health and environmental risks – or so the argument goes.  But an increasing body of research is showing that relatively uniformly sized nanometer scale particles are part and parcel of the environment we live in.  For instance a number of simple organisms such as bacteria and diatoms have the capability to produce nanoparticles, either as part of their natural behavior or under specific conditions.  Nanoscale minerals, it seems, play an important role in shaping the world we live in.  Metals like silver wantonly shed silver nanoparticles into our food and water according to research published last year.  And now a group of researchers have shown that food containing caramelized sugar contains uniformly sized amorphous carbon particles. This latest paper was published in the journal Science Progress a few weeks ago, and analyzes the carbon nanoparticle content of such everyday foods as bread, caramelized sugar, corn flakes and biscuits.  The authors found that products containing caramelized sugar – including baked goods such as bread – contained spherical carbon nanoparticles in the range 4 – 30 nm (with size being associated with the temperature of caramelization).  This isn’t that surprising as nanoparticle formation is closely associated with hot processes.

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Robin Erb has a good piece on cosmetics and safe ingredients in the Detroit Free Press this week – it tackles the very limited regulation over what goes into cosmetics, but balances this with a useful perspective on consumer choice and how this in turn can drive business decisions on what is used and how.  I mention it because the issue of nanoparticles in sunscreens comes up briefly, and I am quoted on the matter. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been fairly vocal about the safety of nanoparticles in sunscreens.  I still contend that the weight of published evidence suggests that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens do not present a significant when the relevant products are developed and used responsibly – and that the benefits of using this technology over others may in fact outweigh any residual risk.  But I’m also aware that this isn’t a closed issue – there are niggling questions on the use of photoactive particles, on nanoparticle sunscreen applications on delicate or compromised skin, and on dermal penetration of chemicals within the nanoparticles, that all need further research.  So I was surprised to read that my mind is apparently made up here! After talking with Robin about cosmetics, sunscreen and nanoparticles, she sent me draft of my comments to check for factual accuracy before the piece went to press.  The original text read: “…Agreed Andrew Maynard, director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health: “The industry seems reasonably well self-regulating.” In his research, Maynard asked whether nanomaterials in sunscreen — the nearly molecular-sized particles that ease the lotion into our skin pores – are dangerous. His conclusion: They’re not. “It was really surprising, to be honest,” he said.” This was uncommonly

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Not in the technical sense I’m afraid, but thought it would be fun to post this image of nano-branded M&Ms.  They were used as part of a recent NanoDays session with local school kids exploring the broader implications of nanotechnology. The only substantive link they have with real nano-enabled products as far as I can tell is the cost – they’re not cheap!

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It’s been hard to avoid the buzz surrounding nano quadrotors this week, following the posting of Vijay Kumar’s jaw-dropping TED talk – and the associated viral video of the semi-autonomous machines playing the James Bond theme. The quadrotors are impressive – incredibly impressive.  But I’m sure I am not the only person watching these videos who felt a shiver of apprehension about where the technology might lead. When people talk about emerging technologies – especially when the focus is on potential risks and unintended consequences – it doesn’t take long for the usual suspects to emerge: with nanotechnology, synthetic biology and geoengineering usually appearing toward the top of the list.  But I wonder whether focusing on big, well-publicized technology trends sometimes masks some of the less discussed but more important technology innovations that are already impacting on people’s lives. Tim Harper and I underscored this concern in a report from the World Economic Forum last year where we suggested we should be focusing just as much on the innovations that build on synergistic connections between technology platforms (see below), because this is where many of the more significant disruptive and game-changing technologies will emerge. It’s partly because of this that I have been so intrigued by the nano quadrotor work coming out of the GRASP lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Technology innovation – building on technology platforms. World Economic Forum: Building a Sustainable Future The nano quadrotors that Vijay Kumar’s team are developing are a prime example of synergistic innovation leading to a game-changing technology.  The quadrotors combine components from multiple technology platforms – sensors, materials, information processing and others – and as a result they present opportunities and risks that depend on the synergism between these platforms.  In other words, the potential disruption comes not from the platforms,

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A few weeks ago I spent some time chatting with Howard Lovy for an article for the Nanobusiness Commercialization Association.  That interview was posted by Vincent Caprio on his blog a few days ago, and raised a few eyebrows – was I showing signs of becoming a nano-risk skeptic? I hope not, as as I still feel emerging evidence and trends indicate major perceived and real risk-related barriers lie in the path of developing nanoscale science and engineering successfully, if we aren’t smart.  But I have always adhered to the idea that successful and responsible technology development depends on taking an evidence-based approach – even if that evidence is sometimes uncomfortable.  And so these days I sometimes worry that too much is made of artificial constructs surrounding “nanotechnology”, and not enough is made of the underlying science. Reading through Howard’s piece, I felt it was a pretty accurate reflection of our conversation.  There are a couple of places where it possibly indicates less concern on my part than is warranted.  Toward the end of the piece for instance I am quoted as saying “there is no need [for the nanobusiness community] to respond to individual challenges such as this lawsuit against the FDA”, referring to a recent lawsuit by consumer advocates against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which claims the FDA is failing to regulate nanomaterials in products. I’m pretty sure I did say something along these lines.  But the context was that lawsuits like these are a relatively widely used mechanism for holding federal agencies to account and prodding them into action.  And while they are often important, the nanobusiness community need to understand this context and be aware of the bigger picture when it comes to responsible and sustainable development. Overall though, the piece captures my increasing

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This has just landed in my email in box from Craig Cormick at the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education in Australia, and I thought I would pass it on given the string of posts on nanoparticles in sunscreens on 2020 Science over the past few years: At Australia’s International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICONN 2012) earlier this month, the results of a public perception study were released that indicate some Australian consumers would rather risk skin cancer by not using sunscreen than use a product containing nanoparticles.  This despite increasing evidence that nanoparticles in sunscreens do not present a significant risk to health. The study was complimented by tests conducted by Australia’s National Measurement Institute that suggest some sunscreens labeled as “nano free” contain nanostructured material. According to the media release on the public perceptions study, “An online poll of 1,000 people, conducted in January this year, shows that one in three Australians had heard or read stories about the risks of using sunscreens with nanoparticles in them,” Dr Cormick said. “Thirteen percent of this group were concerned or confused enough that they would be less likely to use any sunscreen, whether or not it contained nanoparticles, putting them selves at increased risk of developing potentially deadly skin cancers. “The study also found that while one in five respondents stated they would go out of their way to avoid using sunscreens with nanoparticles in them, over three in five would need to know more information before deciding.” A news release sent out a couple of weeks ago to coincide with ICONN 2012 also noted Scientists from Australia’s National Measurement Institute and overseas collaborators reported on a technique using the scattering of synchrotron light to determine the sizes of particles in sunscreens. They found that some

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Here’s an introduction to the “wonders and worries of nanotechnology” that I think is rather brilliant: It’s part of a series being produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota for the Nanoscale Informal Science Education network (NISE Net). The series is designed to stimulate discussions addressing the societal and ethical implication of nanotechnology – but in an accessible and non-threatening way. Keep your eyes peeled for further episodes with Mindy and Denny – having read through some of the draft scripts, I think you will enjoy them!

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For the past few months, the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies has been working on identifying some of the most significant trends in technology innovation.  Published yesterday by WEF, these represent ten areas that we as a council felt are likely to shake things up over the next few years in terms of their economic and social impact. The plan is to update this assessment on an annual basis Here’s the list: Informatics for adding value to information The quantity of information now available to individuals and organizations is unprecedented in human history, and the rate of information generation continues to grow exponentially. Yet, the sheer volume of information is in danger of creating more noise than value, and as a result limiting its effective use. Innovations in how information is organized, mined and processed hold the key to filtering out the noise and using the growing wealth of global information to address emerging challenges. Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering The natural world is a testament to the vast potential inherent in the genetic code at the core of all living organisms. Rapid advances in synthetic biology and metabolic engineering are allowing biologists and engineers to tap into this potential in unprecedented ways, enabling the development of new biological processes and organisms that are designed to serve specific purposes – whether converting biomass to chemicals, fuels and materials, producing new therapeutic drugs or protecting the body against harm. Green Revolution 2.0 – technologies for increased food and biomass Artificial fertilizers are one of the main achievements of modern chemistry, enabling unprecedented increases in crop production yield. Yet, the growing global demand for healthy and nutritious food is threatening to outstrip energy, water and land resources. By integrating advances across the biological and physical sciences, the new

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The US National Academy of Science today published its long-awaited Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials. I won’t comment extensively on the report as I was a member of the committee that wrote it.  But I did want to highlight a number of aspects of it that I think are particularly noteworthy: Great progress so far, but it’s time to change gears. Something we grappled with as a committee was what the value of yet another research strategy was going to be.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the US federal government published a well received strategy of its own.  A key driver behind our strategy was a sense that the past decade has been one of defining the challenges we face as the field of nanotechnology develops, while the next decade will require more focus as an ever greater number of nanotechnology-enabled products hit the market.  In other words, from a research perspective it’s time to change gears, building on past work but focusing on rapidly emerging challenges. Combining life cycle and value chain in a single framework for approaching nanomaterial risk research.  As a committee, we spent considerable time developing a conceptual framework for approaching research addressing the health and environmental impacts of engineered nanomaterials.  What we ended up using was a combination of value chain – ranging from raw materials to intermediate products to final products – and material/product life cycle at each stage of the value chain.  This effectively allows risk hot spots to be identified at each point of a material and product’s development, use and disposal cycle. Principles, not definitions.  Rather than rely on a single definition of engineered nanomaterial to guide risk-related research, we incorporated a set of principles into our conceptual framework to help identify

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Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report is one of the most authoritative annual assessments of emerging issues surrounding risk currently produced. Now in its seventh edition, the 2012 report launched today draws on over 460 experts* from industry, government, academia and civil society to provide insight into 50 global risks across five categories, within a ten-year forward looking window. Global Risk Landscape 2012. Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks 2012, Seventh Edition As you would expect from such a major undertaking, the report has its limitations. There are some risk trends that maybe aren’t captured as well as they could be – chronic disease and pandemics are further down the list this year than I would have expected. And there are others that capture the headlining concerns of the moment – severe income disparity is the top-listed global risk in terms of likelihood. But taken as a whole, the trends highlighted capture key concerns and the analysis provides timely and relevant insight. Risks are addressed in five broad categories, covering economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological risks. And cutting across these, the report considers three top-level issues under the headings Seeds of Dystopia (action or inaction that leads to fragility in states); How Safe are our Safeguards? (unintended consequences of over, under and unresponsive regulation); and The Dark Side of Connectivity (connectivity-induced vulnerability). These provide a strong framework for approaching the identified risks systemically, and teasing apart complex interactions that could lead to adverse consequences. But how does the report relate to public health more specifically? The short answer is that many of the issues raised have a direct or indirect impact on public health nationally and globally. Many of the issues are complex and intertwined, and are deserving of much more attention

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