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Map showing magnetic flux lines for nickel nanoparticles

Navigating the risk landscape that surrounds nanotechnology development can be a daunting task – especially if you are an early career researcher just getting started in the field.  There are plenty of studies and speculations around what might – or might not – be risky about nanoscale science and engineering.   But surprisingly, there are relatively few guideposts to help researchers plot a sensible course through this landscape as they set out to develop successful, safe, and responsible products. Back in June, I wrote about seven basic “guideposts” that I find helpful in thinking about nanotech risks, from a researcher’s perspective.  You can read the the full article in the journal Nature Nanotechnology – here are the highlights though: 1.  Risk starts with something that is worth protecting. We usually think of nanotechnology “risk” as the probability of disease or death occurring – or in the case of the environment, damage to ecosystems – from release of and exposure to engineered nanomaterials.  Yet the risk landscape that lies between novel nanotechnology research and successful product is far more complex, and being aware of its shifting hills and valleys can help avoid early, costly mistakes. When stripped down to fundamentals, risk concerns threats to something you or others value.  Health and well-being tick the box here, alongside integrity and sustainability of the environment.  Yet so do security, friendships, social acceptance, and our sense of personal and cultural identity.  These broader dimensions of “value” often depend on who is defining them, and the circumstances under which they are being defined.  Yet they are critically important in determining the progress of nanoscale science and engineering in today’s increasingly interconnected world. 2.  “Nanotechnology” is an unreliable indicator of risk. While the products of nanotechnology do present risks that need to be understood and addressed, the term”nanotechnology”

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How risky are the World Economic Forum’s top 10 emerging technologies for 2016

Take an advanced technology. Add a twist of fantasy. Stir well, and watch the action unfold. It’s the perfect recipe for a Hollywood tech-disaster blockbuster. And clichéd as it is, it’s the scenario that we too often imagine for emerging technologies. Think superintelligent machines, lab-bred humans, the ability to redesign whole species – you get the picture. The reality, of course, is that the real world is usually far more mundane: less “zombie apocalypse” and more “teens troll supercomputer; teach it bad habits.” Looking through this year’s crop of Top Ten Emerging Technologies from the World Economic Forum (WEF), this is probably a good thing. World Economic Forum     Since 2012, I’ve been part of a group of WEF advisers who help compile an annual list of emerging technologies that are poised to transform our lives. This year’s list includes autonomous vehicles, blockchain (the technology behind BitCoin), next-generation batteries and a number of other technologies that are beginning to make their mark. The list is aimed at raising awareness around potentially transformative technologies so that investors, businesses, regulators and others know what’s coming down the pike. It’s also an opportunity for us to think through what might go wrong as the technologies mature. Admittedly, some of these technologies would stretch the imagination of the most creative of apocalyptic screenwriters – it’ll be a while, I suspect, before “Graphene Apocalypse” or “Day of the Perovskite Cell” hit the silver screen. But others show considerable potential for a summer scare-flick, including “brain-controlling” optogenetics and the mysterious sounding “Internet of Nano Things.” Putting Hollywood fantasies aside, though, it’s hard to predict the plausible downsides of emerging technologies. Yet this is exactly what is needed if we’re to ensure they’re developed responsibly in the long run. Sometimes we need to head back to

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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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What if we approach risk like entrepreneurs approach innovation

If you’ve been following this month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), you’ll know with absolute certainty that the future is cool, shiny and stuffed to the brim with “must-have” gadgets. Reading the ebullient reports, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything other than overflowing optimism for how technology will transform our lives. And admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how smart shoes or a rollable TV screen could possibly be bad for us. From virtual reality so “there” you can almost touch it, to the Internet of every imaginable thing, we’re being dazzled by the seemingly infinite possibilities that modern tech has to offer. But I wonder whether, in all the buzz and hype, we’re in danger of losing sight of the darker side of technology innovation. CES and similar expos represent the glitzy face of deeper trends that could be destructive if developed without a sophisticated appreciation of potential risks. All technologies come with risks With the uncritical enthusiasm around CES, it’s easy to ignore the potential consequences of irresponsible technology innovation. It’s even easier to turn a blind eye to the challenges we face in developing technologies that are good for society as a whole, and don’t just enrich those who create them. Take for example robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) – three trends that were amply represented at the show. While each holds the potential to profoundly change our lives for the better, these technologies are by no stretch of the imagination intrinsically safe. Fears over the consequences of irresponsible AI development have already been widely voiced, and the rapid rise of the Internet of Things threatens to make everyday objects vulnerable to cyber attacks. And all three have the potential to widen the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged. In today’s evolving social

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Responsible innovation is a great concept – it embodies ideas around ensuring our inventiveness works for the long term good of society, without inadvertently throwing up more problems than it solves. But to entrepreneurs and others trying to make ends meet while launching a new product or idea, it can quickly begin to look like an ill-affordable luxury

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If you catch measles, what are your chances of dying? When I was a kid, measles was one of those things you were expected to catch.  I had it when I was five, and must confess, I don’t remember much about the experience.  I do remember being confined to bed.  And I also remember being told that measles could cause blindness – as a budding reader, this scared me.  But I don’t recall anyone hinting at anything worse.  If my parents were worried, they didn’t show it. And I’d certainly never heard of kids who had died – even in playground rumors. So as the current outbreak of measles in the US continues to spread, I’ve been intrigued by statements that the disease has a mortality rate of somewhere between one and three young children per thousand infected. Of course I know as a public health academic that measles is highly infectious and can cause severe harm – even death.  But there was a dissonance between what I was reading and what I felt was correct. Surely if one out of every few hundred kids died as a result of measles as I was growing up, I’d have got wind of it? The mortality rate of around 1 in 1000 though comes with a sound provenance.  It’s there in black and white on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) web pages: “For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it” A 2004 review in the Journal of Infectious Diseases provides further insight.  Using CDC data on reported measles cases in the US between 1989 and 2000,Orenstein, Perry and Halsey indicated that approximately three children under the age of five died for every thousand that caught measles, and that the overall mortality rate for all ages was also around 3 per thousand people infected – the table below gives the

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Is-novelty-in-nanomaterials-overrated-when-it-comes-to-risk

Novelty and nanotechnology are deeply intertwined. The search for nanostructure-enabled materials has driven research funding in nanotechnology for well over a decade now; the exploitation of novel properties has underpinned the commercialization of nanomaterials; and concerns over potential risks has stimulated widespread studies into what makes these materials harmful. Yet ‘novelty’ is an ephemeral quality, and despite its close association with nanotechnology, it may be an unreliable guide to ensuring the long-term safety of materials that emerge from the field. If this is the case, do we need to find alternative approaches to developing advanced materials and products that are safe by design?

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From smart phones to cancer cures, we depend on technology innovation more now than at any point in human history. Yet in a cruel twist of irony, emerging technologies that could help improve lives and protect the environment may ultimately end up doing more harm than good. That is, unless new approaches to responsible innovation are developed and adopted…

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A Sony 85-inch Bravia XBR-X950B 4K television plays video after being unveiled during a Sony news conference at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in Las Vegas

Earlier this week, The Conversation reported that, “The future is bright, the future is … quantum dot televisions.” And judging by the buzz coming from this week’s annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that’s right – the technology is providing manufacturers with a cheap and efficient way of producing the next generation of brilliant, high-definition TV screens. But the quantum dots in these displays also use materials and technologies – including engineered nanoparticles and the heavy metal cadmium – that have been a magnet for health and environmental concerns. Will the dazzling pictures this technology allow blind us to new health and environmental challenges, or do their benefits outweigh the potential risks? Vials of quantum dots producing vivid colors from violet to deep red. Antipoff, CC BY-SA   Answer’s not black and white Quantum dots are a product of the emerging field of nanotechnology. They are made of nanometer-sized particles of a semiconducting material – often cadmium selenide. About 2,000 to 20,000 times smaller than the width of a single human hair, they’re designed to absorb light of one color and emit it as another color – to fluoresce. This property makes them particularly well-suited for use in products like tablets and TVs that need bright, white, uniform backlights. RNGS Reuters    There are of course other chemicals, such as phosphor, that fluoresce and are used in consumer products. What is unique about quantum dots is that the color of the emitted light can be modified by simply changing the size of the quantum dot particles. And because this color-shifting is a physical phenomenon, quantum dots far outperform their chemical counterparts in brightness, color and durability. Unfortunately, the heavy metal cadmium used in the production of many quantum dots is a health and environmental hazard. Under the European Restrictions on Hazardous

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Forget Dr. Oz and The Food Babe – the Risk Bites Holiday Video has enough risks du jour for everyone, and then some. With a tongue in cheek tip of the hat to Tom Lehrer’s Elements Song, we’ve crammed 108 risks into a mere 80 seconds – everything from arsenic and Ebola, to mega storms and falling off a unicycle!  And if you can keep up, you can even indulge in a little song-along Risk Karaoke with the closed captions turned on! (the full lyrics are available here)   Actually, I tell a lie: This is a song about our favorite hazards, not risks.  As the song concludes: These hazards are enough to rattle anyone’s composure, But to turn them into risks they need a dollop of exposure. Of course, while anything on the list could potentially kill, maim, or otherwise harm you, that’s not going to happen unless you’re actually exposed to enough of the hazard to make a difference! Some readers of this blog will remember that I was only going to make the Risk Song video if we reached 10,000 subscribers on Risk Bites.  We’ll, we didn’t, and I did!  Why let a few subscribers stand in the way of so much fun? That said, do us a favor and subscribe to the channel if you haven’t already – it does make us feel that the sweat and tears that go into these videos might just be worth it! And a final word on unicycle hazards – just in case you thought we were making this up, the Houston Chronicle ran this headline last August: ‘Naked unicyclist’ dies in overnight traffic accident in La Porte Have a wonderfully hazard-filled but risk-free 2015!  

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Could we one day 3D print a brain

Could we one day 3D print Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brain?  Before you ask, yes, this is a post about risk.  And no, I’m not talking about the dangers of immortalizing the star of Terminator Genisys‘ real-life biological brain. But to begin somewhere near the beginning: 3D Printing 3D printing – and additive manufacturing more broadly – are on a roll.  The idea of creating objects by building them up them layer by layer has been around for a while.  But over the past couple of years, there have been massive advances in access to low cost, extremely sophisticated 3D printing technologies. At one end of the spectrum, you have devices like the $100 Peach Printer.  At the other, industrial 3D printers that are capable of making on-demand parts for jet engines and other high performance products.  And in between, printers that are enabling everyone from kids and hobbyists to entrepreneurs make stuff that it wasn’t possible to make just a few years ago. The technology is opening new doors to how products are made.  But it’s also potentially leading to new health risks.  Whether it’s the products of 3D printers (how do you control weapons that can be printed at-source, or ensure the safety of a bespoke 3D printed car?), to the emissions from the devices (just how many 3D printers in a classroom does it take before the kids are inhaling more nanoparticles and fumes than is healthy?), 3D printing raises questions around risk and safety. Environmental Implications of Additive Manufacturing This past October, I participated in a National Science Foundation workshop on the Environmental Implications of Additive Manufacturing.  It was a valuable meeting – I want to emphasize that, just in case you suspect that my mind began to drift during the proceedings with what follows.  We talked extensively about the potential health risks of 3D printing and other forms of additive manufacturing,  and

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Products with the label “BPA-free” have become ubiquitous on store shelves in recent years.  It’s a trend that has been driven by consumer concerns that the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, may be harmful at low doses.  Yet a recent study suggests that the label may mislead consumers into thinking that “free” means “safer” — even when there’s a chance that the substances used to substitute for BPA may also be harmful.  The study is one of the first to explore how consumer responses to uncertainty and ambiguity in risk information may lead to “regrettable substitutions” — the replacement of one material with another that is potentially less safe. Bisphenol-A BPA — or Bisphenol-A — is a chemical that’s used in products ranging from plastic bottles and canned food liners to cash register receipts.  Studies have shown that it behaves like a hormone in the human body, and at high exposures can potentially lead to or exacerbate a range of health impacts, including damage to the liver and kidneys, and possible impacts to the reproductive, nervous, immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems.  When low, long-term exposures occur though, the science is less clear.  Many experts interpret available data as showing that there are no significant health risks from current consumer exposure levels. Regulators around the world agree with this assessment and have established what they consider to be acceptably safe levels.  Nevertheless, there are are some scientists who argue that people are overlooking subtle but important health impacts that are potentially associated with exposures below levels considered to be safe. Regrettable Substitution Even though the balance of professional opinion is currently that BPA doesn’t present an appreciable health risk when used in most consumer products, there has been a widespread move — driven largely by public opinion — to remove BPA from consumer products.  The move quickly spawned products with “BPA-free” labels – especially water bottles, where there were initial concerns that BPA could

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First published in Nature Nanotechnology, 5 March 2014.  Nature Nanotechnology 9, 159–160 (2014) doi:10.1038/nnano.2014.43 [Link] Ten years after the publication of an influential report on the uncertainties in nanoscale science and engineering, are we in danger of creating a new metaphorical grey goo? In 2004, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (RS-RAE) in the UK published the report Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties [1]. At the time it was widely speculated that the report arose from concerns expressed by Prince Charles over the possibility that nanotechnology could lead to a ‘grey goo’ scenario where self-replicating ‘nanobots’ destroy life as we know it [2]. Outlandish as the alleged motivation was (and Prince Charles was quick to downplay reports of his grey goo concerns [3]), the resulting report set the pace for the next decade of global research into the potential impacts of nanotechnology — and how to avoid them. Around the time the report was commissioned, concerns over the potential unanticipated consequences of nanotechnology were beginning to gain wider traction [4]. Essays like Bill Joy’s ‘Why the future doesn’t need us’ [5] were raising concerns in the public domain, and professional interest in possible human health and environmental impacts of nanoscale science and engineering had been growing steadily for the previous decade. As far back as 1992, for example, the journal Nature published a Correspondence raising the issue of possible asbestos-like behaviour of carbon nanotubes [6] — less than a year after Sumio Iijima published his seminal work on the structures [7]. And during the 1990s, particle toxicologists began revealing increasingly unusual biological interactions associated with certain nanoscale particles [8]. During this period, the US and other countries were beginning to invest heavily in nanoscale science and engineering as an engine of economic growth [9]. Alert to a potential public backlash against the

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Between now and the end of the year, we’re aiming to reach 10,000 subscribers on the Risk Bites YouTube channel, and we need your help.  To find out how, click here or check out the #RiskBites10k hashtag on Twitter  Otherwise, keep on reading to find out more. Almost two years ago we launched Risk Bites–a YouTube channel dedicated to making the science behind human health risks understandable and, dare I say it, interesting.  Since then, we’ve posted over 80 videos,  kept viewers entertained for over 700,000 minutes (equivalent to one person watching us round the clock for 1.3 years!)  and built up a dedicated following. This is great.  But we think that there are a whole bunch more people out there who would get a kick out of our videos, if only they knew we existed.   Five reasons to subscribe to Risk Bites: Risk Bites tackles the science behind real issues  – we cover everything from Ebola to vaping and cell phones to shower gels. Risk Bites answers those questions you always wondered about, but never dared ask – like “are green potato chips bad for you?” or “should I worry about people peeing in the swimming pool?” Risk Bites videos provide unique insights into how people think about risk, tackling topics like Dread,  and why people aren’t more scared of diseases like Measles. Risk Bites gives you the inside scoop on the latest science from the people that live this stuff. We take risk dead seriously at Risk Bites, but that doesn’t stop us having fun (alien blood anyone?).   Between now and the end of the year, we’ve set ourselves the task of getting 10,000 subscribers to the channel. And this is where we need your help. Help us reach 10,000 subscribers: Subscribe by clicking here.   It’s quick and painless.  And you get notified every time we upload a new video! Watch

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I’m extremely pleased to introduce our new Writer in Residence at the University of Michigan Risk Science Center – Utibe Effiong (UT). UT will be writing about human health risk from a developing economy perspective on his blog Risk Without Borders. UT is a physician from Nigeria who recently completed his Master of Public Health training in my department at the U-M School of Public Health.  He is also a New Voices fellow with the Aspen Institute. The Writer in Residence initiative aims to provide opportunities for public communicators to further develop their skills by contributing relevant and timely commentary on the science of risk.  In UT’s case, he brings a unique perspective to the public dialogue around risk, and one that I’m very much looking forward to reading about. Please do check out UT’s new blog Risk Without Borders, and especially his latest post introducing himself. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Risk Science Center website for regular updates on UT’s blog, as well as other posts.    

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I had a roller coaster of an interview with Seth Shostak (Director of the Center for SETI Research and host of Big Picture Science) last week on risk and black swan events. I was poised to talk about rare but high impact events like a mega-eruption at Yellowstone National Park, or a major asteroid hit. I was going to put these into context with more common risks – such as getting cancer, dying from excessive heat, or being killed by a dog bite (yes, it happens more than you’d think). I was prepared to talk with authority about micromorts, and the relative risk of being killed in a fall versus a car crash (surprisingly similar as it turns out). I’d done my homework. Not that it mattered.  Like all the best interviews, this one went off piste at frightening speed. We talked about the risks of new technologies; the dangers (or not) of  using cell phones; probability distributions and sparse risk-event data sets; insurance companies and premiums; to fear – and sharks; dread;  emotional responses to perceived risks; getting your kids vaccinated (do); familiar risks; unfamiliar risks; ebola; confusing concern with fear; making sense of big numbers.  We even talked about how extending our lifespans to centuries might change how we think about risk. We didn’t talk about micromorts. But with hindsight, that may have been the wafer thin mint that pushed us over the edge of risk-gluttony.  A black swan event well-avoided. You can hear the full episode at Big Picture Science on the Tale of the Distribution.  My segment begins at 37:55 (And, just in case you’re wondering, your chances of dying in a mega-eruption at Yellowstone during a one month vacation, are around a tenth of a micromort.  Probably.)

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Over the past several weeks, we’ve been posting articles on the ebola outbreak from University of Michigan experts. As concern continues to grow over the outbreak, we’ve collected these together on the Risk Science Center Ebola Virus Topic Page, and will continue to add to this as new articles are posted. Current articles include perspectives on the deadliness of the virus, the severity of the outbreak, how contagious ebola is, approaches to quarantining and isolating patients, fraudulent treatments, and more. Click here to visit the Risk Science Center Ebola Virus Topic Page

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The University of Michigan School of Public Health has posted a number of resources on the current ebola outbreak on its website, including a series of interviews with experts on risks and concerns.  These are well worth checking out for clear and informed information on health risks associated with the outbreak. For more information on ebola and risk, also check out the Risk Science Center archive of ebola articles. Ebola Links University of Michigan School of Public Health topics page on ebola: http://www.sph.umich.edu/ebola/ Risk Science Center articles in ebola: http://www.riskscience.umich.edu/ebola/ 2020 Science Notes are short comments and reflections on stories that grab my attention – browse them all here.

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Visualizing risk, NHS style It maybe because I hang out too much in the US these days, but I’ve only just come across this rather excellent  Atlas of Risk from the UK National Health Service: Visualizing causes of death The Atlas uses a highly intuitive visualization approach to exploring information on health risks.  Fire the atlas up, and the top causes of death in the UK are shown by overlapping circles, with the area representing relative numbers. Hover over a circle, and more information on that cause of death is displayed: When you click on the circle, a breakdown of the specific diseases associated with this cause of death are shown – again, with an intuitive graphical representation of their relative occurrence: Click on one of these circles, and you are presented with yet more information: Visualize by gender and age You can also select cause of death information by gender or age range – and visually watch the relative risks shift between different populations: Visualizing relative risk If you are interested in relative risks of dying associated with factors such as smoking, obesity or even being murdered, clicking on the second tab from the left will display this information.  Relative risks of dying as a result of 15 conditions or factors are shown, again using circles. As with the Causes display, clicking on a circle brings up increasing levels of information: Alternative data displays And if you don’t particularly like the circles, the data are just as easily shown as bars – for each level of the atlas: Raw data On of the rather neat additional features of the atlas is that the original data are available, as well as the visualizations: Playing with the atlas, I am a little disappointed that it makes no mention of deaths or risks of death

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2020 Science is published by Andrew Maynard - Director of the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University. More ... 

Andrew can be found on Twitter at @2020science and on YouTube at Risk Bites

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