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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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Walking across campus to my office each morning this semester, I’ve found it hard to ignore the growing number of students using hoverboards to get around. These two-wheel self-balancing boards (they don’t really hover, Back-to-the-Future-style) are one of the hottest gadgets this holiday season. As sedentary lifestyles continue to be a major underlying factor in chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, I wondered whether these trendy two-wheelers are simply another way to avoid the exercise we all need to stay healthy. As it turns out, it’s not only their health that hoverboard users need to worry about.

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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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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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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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Why are materials important? How do they limit what we can achieve? And what can we do to change this?  (Check out the videos below). Advanced Materials Materials and how we use them are inextricably linked to the development of human society.  Yet amazing as historic achievements using stone, wood, metals and other substances seem, these are unbelievably crude compared to the full potential of what could be achieved with designer materials. Over the past 20 years or so, the field of nanotechnology has stimulated massive strides in designing and engineering new materials from the scale of atoms up.  It’s now possible to stitch together atoms in novel ways to create materials that far outperform their historic counterparts.  But we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible.  Scientists and engineers are now learning how to design highly sophisticated materials that behave in ways that were inconceivable just a few years ago – lightweight metals, flexible glass, cloaking materials,tissue repair scaffolds and more; the full list of emerging materials is impressively long, and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a science fiction anthology not so long ago. As these new, advanced materials begin to find their way into the products you use and rely on, what do you need to know about what they are, and how they can be developed and used responsibly? The Risk Bites channel over on YouTube has a series short primers on advanced materials – check them out below (they’re only a few minutes long). Or if you are feeling more adventurous, check out the slightly longer Brief Introduction to Advanced Materials, which pulls all the information into one 22 minute video. A Brief History of Materials   Designer Materials in the 20th Century   Advanced Designer Materials   Are Advanced Materials Safe?   What Makes Advanced Materials Harmful?   Do Novel Materials Present Novel Risks?

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We’ve been making Risk Bites videos for a couple of years now – if you haven’t seen them, they’re short, understandable and (hopefully) entertaining videos about the science behind human health risks. If you haven’t checked out the channel in a while, please pop over and take a look (http://www.youtube.com/user/riskbites/videos).  We’ve been implementing a few changes over the past couple of months, including new channel styling, psychedelic video art, and NO ADS (we played around will enabling ads on the videos, but to be honest it didn’t increase views, irritated me, and undermined the whole idea of providing a public resource on risk and safety). As you might imagine, these videos take a significant amount of time and resources to make.  That’s fine – it’s what we do at the Risk Science Center – but it does mean that we get kind of sad when we don’t get gazillions of views. We’ll be having a push in increasing subscribers this fall to help us feel a little less inadequate, but don’t let that stop you subscribing now, and getting your friends and family to do the same!  All it takes is a quick click on the button below.   Thanks!  

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Chemistry World posted a good article yesterday on nanotech regulation in Europe (Europe mulls best way to handle nanotech by Andrew Williams).  I have a couple of quotes in the piece, along with Risk Science Center colleague Diana Bowman).  These are taken from a longer set of responses to questions from Williams, which I thought it might be worth posting here (edited slightly so that they make more sense grammatically!) What are currently the main EU nanomaterial regulations? What are the key elements of these regulations? What is REACH’s (Registration Evaluation Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals regulations) stance as a pan-national regulation on nanomaterials – and is it moving towards the creation of a register? REACH has deep implications to how chemical substances are assessed and regulated across the European Union, and is impacting on any company either wanting to trade with member states, or manufacture within these states (and so the reach – if you’ll forgive the pun – goes well beyond the EU). Two associated issues here are what constitutes a nanomaterial, and whether the explicit differentiation of nano- and non-nanoscale materials make sense within the context of REACH. The EC Joint Research Council recently published a massive 280+ page document evaluating the previously released definition of nano materials for regulatory purposes – and this is just part one of the definition review process! This document provides a deep and scientifically rigorous assessment of considerations relevant to a definition for regulatory purposes, but is still driven by the assumption that there is something unique about engineered nanomaterial risks that requires them to be distinguished from other materials. I continue to argue that some emerging materials will lead to unanticipated health challenges, but that fixating on the nanoscale potentially blinkers a larger conversation about advanced material safety (latest piece on this).  

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Pathogen safety in federal labs Over the past few weeks, revelations of potentially dangerous errors in US federal labs handling pathogens have placed health and safety high on the national agenda.  In June, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced as many as 75 of its staff may have been exposed to anthrax due to safety issues at one of its labs.  At the beginning of July, vials of smallpox virus were found in an unsecured room at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Then earlier this week came the revelation that in the same room were over 300 vials containing pathogens such as dengue virus, influenza, and the bacterium that causes Q fever. Congressional hearing The CDC anthrax incident prompted a hearing by the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations this week.  At the hearing, CDC director Tom Frieden acknowledged a “broader problem of unsafe practices at the agency”.  But as an article in today’s New York Times points out, similar issues are not confined to the CDC, or to federal labs. Broader safety issues The issue at hand is one of safe practices around research on pathogens.  But the emerging pattern of  lax safety procedures indicative of a broader culture of complacency in research labs. Most researchers I know are committed to ensuring a safety environment in their labs.  Yet there is often a disconnect between intent and practice.  To an outsider on a walk-through, many academic labs and not a few government labs can appear a minefield of dangerous incidents waiting to happen. Researchers will often argue that they know what they are doing, and what looks dangerous to a non-expert really isn’t as risky as they might think.  And yet incidents like the ones above happen. Dangerous contempt It may be that the old adage of familiarity breeding contempt

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I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of Surrey nanosystems’ carbon nanotube-based Vantablack material this week. The material’s had widespread coverage – just Google “vantablack” to see what I mean.  But in amongst all the geeked-out media excitement over the world’s darkest material, there’s been nary a word on the possible health risks presented by the material. As it turns out, this is fair enough, as the likelihood of anyone being exposed to substantial amounts of Vantablack carbon nanotubes is pretty low – as I discussed the other day. But consider this: 1.  Certain forms of carbon nanotubes are known to be highly toxic if inhaled; 2.  Past media coverage (and research) has compared long, thin, straight carbon nanotubes to asbestos; 3.  The biggest no-no with carbon nanotubes would be to use them in clothing and furnishings where they could be released and inhaled; and 4.  Rather a lot of the media coverage of Vantablack speculated about  the material’s use in ultra-black clothing. You’d have thought that, with this context, at least one journalist would have written something about the potential risks and how they might be avoided. But apart from the 2020 Science piece posted on Wednesday, I cannot find a single article that goes beyond giddy excitement. (If you do find one, please post the link in the comments!) I guess tech writers either don’t care that much about the possible risks of engineered nanomaterials like carbon nanotubes, or don’t know enough to care. Which is disappointing for readers who’d like to know about the possible risks as well as the potential benefits – even if the risks are negligible.  

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What are the risks of nanoparticles in sunscreens? The New York Times has just posted an “Ask Well” article today by Deborah Blum answering the questions What are the risks from nanoparticles of titanium in sunscreens? and I am curious about the dangers of nanoparticles in sunblocks Risk Bites As I uploaded a YouTube video recently on the risks of TiO2 nanoparticles in sunscreens, I thought this was probably an opportune time to flag it up here, as it compliments Deborah’s piece: And just for the heck of it, here’s the 2020 science archive on sunscreens and nanoparticles. The New York Times also posted their own video (here).  It covers much of the same ground as Deborah’s piece. The video frustratingly does refer to “titanium” in sunscreens – probably because the first of the questions above uses this terminology.  It’s worth pointing out that titanium dioxide and titanium are not the same, even though they both contain atoms of titanium – just like carbon and cyanide aren’t the same.  And believe me, if airplane manufacturers for instance were as cavalier about whether they were using titanium dioxide or titanium, we’d have a problem!  But this may just be me nit-picking! Titanium dioxide and cancer Both the New York Times video and article also refer to the International Agency on Research on Cancer (IARC) classification of titanium dioxide as a potential carcinogen.  This classification was solely associated with inhalation exposure, where one study showed that overloading the lungs of rats with massive amounts of titanium dioxide dust led to some cancer formation.  It is not related to skin applications of the substance.  It is also highly controversial, as the levels of titanium dioxide used in these studies were so massive that they utterly overwhelmed the lungs defense mechanisms, and led to a result that would probably

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Vantablack – the new black? Over the past few days, the interweb’s been awash with virtual “oohs” and “ahs” over Surrey Nanosystems’ carbon nanotube-based Vantablack coating.  The material – which absorbs over 99.9% of light falling onto it and is claimed to be the world’s darkest material – is made up of a densely packed “forest” of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes (see the image below).  In fact the name “vanta” stands for Vertically Aligned NanoTube Array. Vantablack makes for a great story – so much so that while the coating is designed for space-based optical applications, some journalists couldn’t resist speculating about the potential for using the product with clothing – and especially for crating the ultimate “little black dress“. Safety alarm bells Perhaps not surprisingly, this began to ring alarm bells with me as someone who’s worked for a number of years on the potential health risks of carbon nanotubes.  There’s a growing body of research that suggests carbon nanotubes can be potentially harmful if inhaled – especially if they are long, thin and straight.  And because of this, applications that look like they could lead to people being exposed to carbon nanotubes concern me. The critical word here though is “exposed”. Negligible exposure, negligible risk Following up, I checked in with Surrey Nanosystems Chief Technology Officer Ben Jensen on what is currently known about the potential for people to be exposed to Vantablack nanotubes. Ben clarified that Vantablack is designed for use in tightly controlled and highly predictable environments where people cannot come into contact with the material – environments such as satellite-based optical systems.  This is most definitely not aimed at consumer products!  He also pointed me to a recently published paper in the journal Optics Express that describes the material in detail, and provides data on tests designed to evaluate how well the nanotubes stick

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Jim Thomas of the ETC Group has just posted a well reasoned article on the Guardian website  on the challenges of defining the the emerging technology of “synthetic biology”.  The article is the latest in a series of exchanges addressing the potential risks of the technology and its effective regulation. Alleged use of synthetic biology challenged At the end of May, the New York Times published a piece on the Belgian company Ecover – a household cleaning and personal care products company that’s heavily focused on sustainability – that highlighted the company’s decision to move from using palm oil to an algal oil allegedly derived from synthetic biology.  In response, 17 groups publicly petitioned Ecover to reconsider their decision to use a synthetic biology-derived product.  Led by the ETC Group and including signatories from groups such as Consumers Union and Friends of the Earth, the open letter claimed that a combination of unknown risks, the lack of a synthetic biology-specific regulatory framework, social justice challenges with their Briazilian-sourced sugar cane feedstock, and the available of alternative oil sources, brought into question the appropriateness of  Ecover’s decision. Counter arguments In response, on June 27th Ecover challenged a number of the claims in the open letter, while committing to a fact-based dialogue on their use of specific technologies. They also challenged the allegation that they are using a product based on synthetic biology, noting that The genetic modification process used by the supplier of our algal oil employs the natural mutation process of algae and standard industrial fermentation. Our supplier uses microalgae strains that have been in existence longer than we have, and they work within their natural oil producing pathways using decades-old molecular biology techniques to produce algal oil. And this is where Jim Thomas in his Guardian article questions whether companies are beginning to play around with definitions to exploit

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The materials that most current regulations were designed to handle are pretty simple by today’s standards. Sure they can do some nasty things to the environment or your body if handled inappropriately. And without a doubt some of the risks associated with these “simple” materials are not yet well understood – especially when it comes to long term and trans-generational impacts. Yet it’s hard to escape that reality that researchers are now designing new materials from the ground up that behave in novel ways, that have few analogs in the world of conventional materials, and that exhibit different properties according to the environment they are in. And as they do, it is becoming increasingly apparent that many of the regulations we rely on are ill-equip them to deal with the pending flood of sophisticated materials that is coming our way. The development of relatively simple engineered nanomaterials in recent years has highlighted this disconnect between established regulations and the new demands being placed on them. Fortunately, many of the first nanomaterials to emerge have not presented insurmountable challenges, and regulators have been able to stretch existing regulatory frameworks to cover them (although even this in itself has not been an easy task). But these are just the beginning of a trend in novel materials designed and engineered at the nanoscale that will transcend current regulatory mindsets. So what what are the options here? Before this question can be answered, a clearer understanding of the issues being faced needs to be developed. Some of these are explored by Graeme Hodge, Di Bowman and myself in a commentary in the August 2011 edition of the journal Nature Materials.

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It looks like the US is heading for some serious action on addressing the safe development and use of nanotechnology-enabled materials, products and processes in 2011.  Reading through the just-released National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI) Supplement to the President’s 2011 budget [PDF, 1.2 MB], there are some noteworthy inclusions:

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Well I guess I set myself up good and proper – I should have realized that in asking people for their questions on nanotechnology safety last week, they would actually want answers! Having failed miserably to compile a catalog of websites that provide clear and concise answers to the questions asked in last week’s blog (I gave up after the 6th question),  the least I can do is provide some my own answers.  So here they are…

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I should warn you in advance – this is an interactive blog – there’s something I want from you!  I have a question – where do ordinary people go to get information on nanotechnology safety? Feeling a little lazy I thought I would get you – the loyal 2020 Science readership – to help me out here.  Below are twenty questions on nanotechnology safety provided by folks on Twitter and FaceBook (okay so I’m using the term “normal people” in its widest sense).  What I would like is for readers to let me know which websites they feel best answer the questions.  This is how it’s going to work:

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If you ever wanted proof that the nanotechnology research community is floundering when it comes to safe working practices, look no further than a paper just published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.  The paper, written by researchers at the Nanoscience Institute of Aragon (NIA) in Spain, surveys nanosafety practices in labs around the world.  Sadly, the flaws in the paper make the point that more needs to be done to raise safety awareness far more eloquently than its content.

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A new paper published on-line today in Nature Nanotechnology hints that some nanoparticles could cause damage to cells on the other side of normally tight barriers – such as the blood brain barrier or the placenta – without actually crossing the barriers.  It’s a study that could raise concerns over the safe  medical use of nanoparticles, at a time when the first human trials of “smart nanoparticle” therapeutics are being discussed. Using an artificial system designed to investigate cellular barriers, Gevdeep Bhaba and co-authors show that high concentrations of Cobalt-Chromium alloy nanoparticles on one side of a tightly meshed layer of cells can cause measurable DNA damage to cells on the other side.  And they seem to do this without actually crossing the cellular barrier. I’m not sure how much attention this paper will get, but given its apparent relevance to harm occurring across the placental barrier, there could be some pickup beyond the usual scientific outlets.  And interestingly, it is being published at the same time as the first human trials for a “smart nanoparticle” based cancer therapy are being reported – that’s a juxtaposition that could drive a substantial amount of interest in the research.

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

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