Health fears as hi-tech science hits the shops
Key quote "The technology and applications of nanoparticles are racing ahead and still we haven't actually put together a proper research programme into the effect of nanoparticles on the biological system." - Professor Anthony Seaton
Story in full HUNDREDS of nanotechnology products about to hit shop shelves have not been properly tested for their safety, one of the UK's leading environmental health experts has warned.
Nanotechnology, in which substances are manipulated at the microscopic level, is being used in a tranche of new products, from medical bandages to golf clubs and paints.
But Edinburgh-based Professor Anthony Seaton said there had been no rigorous investigation into the potential for goods which used nanotechnology to cause harm to health.
He said concerns tiny particles from the products might cause respiratory, cardiac and immune problems had not been properly assessed.
Prof Seaton was speaking just weeks after the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched a consultation on plans to ask companies developing products such as sunscreens, paints and fuels that use nanoparticles to provide health and safety information.
But a leading industry scientist described fears about nanotechnology as "a load of baloney".
Prof Seaton helped draft a joint Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering paper on nanotechnology in 2004. While the paper dispelled the widely ridiculed doomsday fears and affirmed overall support for the technology, it laid out several areas of concern and called for further testing.
However, speaking to The Scotsman ahead of a presentation he gave yesterday at the Nanoparticles for European Industry conference in London, Prof Seaton said, two years on, the recommended testing "simply hasn't happened".
He said: "The technology and applications of nanoparticles are racing ahead and still we haven't actually put together a proper research programme into the effect of nanoparticles on the biological system.
"We don't know enough to know which nanoparticles would be harmful."
Nanotechnology is an emerging field of science involving substances ten thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair.
A recent report from a United States science watchdog suggested there were already 200 products containing nanoparticles on the marketplace, with hundreds more to be introduced in the coming year.
Campaigners point to asbestos - a nanoparticle already linked to cancer - and the high rate of heart failure in dense pollution areas as early warnings of nanoparticles' potential hazards when inhaled.
Others worry that nanoparticles can pass through the skin, causing inflammation and other potential health problems.
In one of the more alarmist scares, the Prince of Wales backed claims in 2003 that nanotechnology could lead to the world disappearing into a "grey goo" of out-of-control, self-replicating nano-scale robots.
Prof Seaton said that along with risks to public health, unforeseen adverse events might damage public perception of an important new field of science.
"This technology promises many benefits to society, and public confidence is very important. Genetic modification is a good analogy," he said.
"Because of suspected commercial abuses, it lost credibility with the public and thus the likely benefits of its judicious use have been lost."
In response to the Royal Society's concerns, Defra has asked companies to sign up to a voluntary reporting scheme as the government prepares potential control guidelines.
However, environmentalists have raised concerns about how much companies will be willing to disclose about their research and development .
Greenpeace UK's chief scientist, Doug Barr, said the government should impose a moratorium on the release of products with free nanoparticles - ones not bound up in a compound, as most are - until evidence of their safety emerged, ideally from publicly funded studies.
"Industry data rarely provides the whole story. On what basis do we think the nanotechnology industry is going to tell Defra things that are not in its commercial interest to disclose?" he said.
"Further, by the time Defra collects data and releases controls, we will already have hundreds of products on the marketplace, meaning there would be great commercial and political obstacles to taking them off the market."
Prof Seaton said many nanotechnology companies were small spin-offs from academic institutions and could not afford elaborate health and safety research. However, he described Defra's recommendations as "very satisfactory".
He said: "It's good to see that something is being done. Once we know what the small companies are doing, we will be able to decide if the government should fund their safety research. The problem is, at the moment, we simply don't know who is developing what."
However Dr Gerhard Nohynek, scientific director of worldwide safety evaluation at cosmetic giant L'Oral, which uses nanotechnology in some of its products, said: "This is a load of baloney.
"There are products which contain nanoparticles, such as sunscreens, but these have been tested and are known to be safe."
Dr Nohynek said that where there was a risk of exposure to raw or free nanoparticles there might be more of a problem.
However he said that even there, experts had found it difficult to show there was any risk. "I know people who try to do inhalation toxicity studies with nanoparticles. It is very difficult to keep them up in the air," he said. They have a tendency to conglomerate and fall out.
"If you take a pot of [larger] micro-particles, they look like flour - flour is a microparticle. Nanoparticles look like glue. It's sticky stuff. It becomes a more liquid-like consistency than a powder. You get down to a size where the differences between these terms - solid, liquid, powder - start falling apart."
He added: "To the best of my knowledge, I see no imminent danger or risk to public health."
A spokeswoman for Defra said concerns about the potential harmful effects on health were the reason the government was working with the European Union and other international bodies "to look at all the possible risks and work them out of the system, to manage them.
"We need to work out what the possible consequences might be. The aim is for [nanotechnology] to be for the good, but there might be some bad. The aim is to identify issues before they become a problem," she said.
"It is something that has the potential both for benefits and for possible harm. So we have to work out which is which."
Asked whether the government would act in time to prevent harmful nano products coming on to the market, the spokeswoman said: "That's the general idea."
Nanotechnology products include:
Footwarmers: Aspen Aerogels launched a nanotechonolgy-based footwarmer in March 2004, which is now used by the Canadian ski team and the US military. The insoles are much thinner than other thermal-insulating varieties.
Muscle-pain cream: Flex-Power has introduced a muscle liniment that claims to use 90 nanometer liposomes to soothe aching muscles. Many professional athletes are investors.
Washable mattresses: Last year Simmons Bedding, one of the world's largest mattress manufacturers, introduced the HealthSmart Bed, featuring a zip-off mattress top that can be laundered or dry-cleaned.
Golf clubs: Tokyo-based Maruman & Co launched its line of "New Majesty" drivers in 2004. It uses nanotechnology for resilience and promises an extra 15yd to a shot.
Wound dressings for burn victims, and infection-proof fibres: EnviroSystems has developed a fibre it says is impervious to infection. Ecotru is already used to treat burn victims, and airlines bought it after the SARS virus scare of 2003.
Waterproofing spray: Mincor, a coating for buildings that has extreme water repellency.
Windscreen cleaners: Nanofilm's product, Clarity Defender, claims to increase driver vision by 34 per cent on rainy nights by providing an invisible barrier that prevents snow, rain, ice, insects and tar from sticking to windscreens.
Dental adhesive: Dentists may soon use nanoparticles for fitting porcelain veneers, tooth restoration and root canal work.
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