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We keep writing about the risks involved with nanotechnology, so it’s nice to be able to highlight a potential benefit. Andrew Schneider reports for AOL News that researchers from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology have developed a “nanopatch” that can deliver vaccines more effectively than intramuscular injection:
[University of Queensland Professor Mark] Kendall told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the nanopatch is designed to place vaccines directly into the skin, where a “rich body of immune cells are.” A needle, by contrast, injects vaccines into muscles with few immune cells. As a result, the vaccines delivered by nanopatch are more effective, he said.
Cheap, simple, and effective vaccine administration has the potential to dramatically increase immunization rates in underresourced areas. Currently, many agencies struggle to fund struggle to fund vaccination programs that rely on refrigerated vaccines administered by trained professionals. Kendall also points out that easier transportation and administration of nanopatches can speed vaccination when the next pandemic develops. (The kind of fast response he envisions would also require us to overhaul our current vaccine-production system, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Such worthwhile applications of nanotechnology reminds us why we need to get this right — study the risks of nanotechnology, and put appropriate safeguards in place before nanoparticles are omnipresent. If several years from now nanoparticles have become the next asbestos, the chances of successfully promoting this kind of promising application will shrink.
Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Andrew Schneider broke the story of the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Montana, and now he’s digging into the use of another substance that has the potential to become equally widespread before its risks to human health are understood. In a three-part series for AOL News, Schneider reports on how widely used nanomaterials are, what researchers are learning about potential health risks associated with them – and how disappointingly slow the US regulatory system has been to respond.
In “Amid Nanotech’s Dazzling Promise, Health Risks Grow,” Schneider explains that the booming nanotech market holds promise for achieving advances in medicine and food safety, but we don’t yet know how our bodies are affected by nanoparticles we inhale, ingest, or spread on our skin. (You may not think you’re doing these things, but nanoparticles are in so many products these days that we’re all probably exposed to some degree.) He describes a range of research findings that raise concerns:
Jennifer Sass at NRDC’s Switchboard blog takes a look at the good things that the Obama administration EPA, headed by Administrator Lisa Jackson, is doing on toxic substances. Three of the ones she pointed out particularly caught my eye; she writes:
Nanosilver and nano-scale pesticides: Next week EPA will ask its Scientific Advisory Panel to review the data relevant to conducting a safety assessment of nanosilver and other nano-sized metals used as antimicrobials and pesticides. These hazardous nano-sized metals, including both nanosilver and nano-copper, are used in hundreds of commercial products without having undergone any safety testing or registration on the nano-sized material. NRDC will provide these comments to the expert panel at its review next week.
IRIS review process for hazardous chemical assessments: Overturning a highly-criticized Bush-era policy that formalized White House interference, Administrator Jackson announced a new process for assessing toxic chemicals under the Office of Research and Development IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System) program, in addition to $5 million and 10 new employees for the IRIS program. The new process increases public transparency and reduces political interference.
TRI reporting of hazardous releases: EPA reversed a 2006 rulemaking that reduced the number of industrial facilities required to provide detailed reports of their emissions under the Toxic Release Inventory. NRDC and many others had objected to this rule. This rule was overturned in the omnibus signed by President Obama.
As Jennifer notes — and as Rena Steinzor and Matt Shudtz pointed out last week — the effectiveness of both IRIS and TRI may be limited by the Office of Management and Budget. Nonetheless, the EPA is moving in a promising direction. Go read the whole post for more good news.
In June, EPA published a Federal Register notice that included Significant New Use Rules (SNURs) for two carbon nanotubes (as well as 21 other chemicals). That notice certainly got the attention of lawyers in town (see here, here and here). The nanotube SNURs would require anyone planning to produce or process either of the two substances to notify EPA if the person intended not to comply with the (rather limited) risk management conditions specified by EPA. Well, as reported yesterday by Sara Goodman of E&E News, EPA is now withdrawing the SNURs, at least temporarily.
[Note: Since first posting this Friday, I have made a few changes. In first writing this post, I let show too much my frustration over the fact that even the smallest of steps taken by EPA to ensure some review of nanomaterials prior to their commercialization appears to have engendered an industry challenge. In a few places, I got too personal and took some gratuitous swipes I shouldn't have. I apologize for that, and have taken those out.]
Three physicians and researchers from the Capital University of Medical Sciences (Beijing, China) have published a case report in the European Respiratory Journal describing severe lung disease in seven female workers employed at a shop where they applied polyacrylic coatings to polystyrene boards. The lung disease is just one part of the story—two of the women died (ages 19 and 29)—the other part is that pathology samples from the workers’ lungs identified 30 nm (nanometer) in diameter particles. Further investigation found that the coatings used by the workers contained nano partcles, too.
I commend the authors for taking the time to write up their findings and sharing them in the peer-reviewed literature. As our public health history has demonstrated time and again, we rely on alert clinicians to find time in their stretched-thin schedules to share compelling, puzzling, exceptional or intriguing medical findings. Here are the basics of this case(s) report:
Investigative journalist Carole Bass has written extensively about nanotechnology, emphasizing how little we know about the risks associated with the nanoparticles now used in a wide range of consumer products, from sunscreen to stain-resistant clothing. Her latest piece, in the new issue of E Magazine, includes an exploration of what these particles do when they wash off our skin and clothing and go down the drain:
The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) coordinates Federal R&D activities related to nanotechnology. Currently, the NNI involves the activities of 25 Federal agencies, 13 of which have budgets planned for 2010. Four of these agencies have specific responsibilities to address environmental, health, and safety (EHS) nanotechnology research needs as outlined by the 2008 NNI publication Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Needs for Engineered Nanoscale Materials. The four agencies are: USEPA, NIOSH, NIST, and NIH (that’s the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and National Institute of Health). Four other Federal agencies have EHS budgets, but are not appointed with specific EHS nanotechnology research priorities by NNI. These agencies are: NSF, DoD, DOE, and USDA (National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and United States Department of Agriculture).
Using publicly available NNI budget data, we evaluated the planned investments for nanotechnology EHS research in 2010. The data for the USEPA, NIOSH, NIST, and NIH were assessed to determine the percent of the Agency’s budget dedicated to nanotechnology EHS research and the status of the budgets as compared with 2009 data. Finally, the total NNI EHS budget was examined to help to provide a sense of perspective.
We’ve written before about the way that use of nanomaterials in consumer products is outpacing research on the materials’ occupational and environmental health effects. So, it’s good to see that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is contributing a piece to the puzzle, and getting the word out to the public about their research.
NIOSH scientists Vincent Castranova, Ann Hubbs, Dale Porter, and Robert Mercer conducted a study in which laboratory mice inhaled liquid containing multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs). Attendees at last week’s Society for Toxicology meeting got to hear about the study results, and so the scientists figured that the general public ought to be able to learn about them, too.
In their post on the NIOSH Science Blog, the authors stress that their results haven’t been formally peer-reviewed, although they will be once articles on the study are submitted to journals. I’m glad they didn’t wait for the formal peer-review process to alert the public to their findings, which are worrisome but not surprising, given what we learned last year about carbon nanotubes having effects similar to those of asbestos fibers when injected into the abdominal cavities of mice.
Here’s what Castranova et al found:
The latest piece from Rick Weiss at Science Progress is a must-read for anyone concerned about the safety of nanotechnology. Weiss attended a conference sponsored by the Food and Drug Law Institute where lawyers provided advice about avoiding nanotech-related lawsuits, and learned this:
In short, if you are a nanotech company you need to start developing a legal strategy for “how to protect yourself,” summarized Henry Chajet, an attorney with Patton Boggs. Listening, I felt sheepish for thinking it was about how to protect your employees and customers. …
One of the best ways to stay clear of such lawsuits is to post adequate safety warnings for workers and consumers, Chajet advised, so that any user who eventually claims to have been harmed by the stuff can be argued in court to have been a “sophisticated user”—someone who was aware of the risks and took them anyway.
“‘Sophisticated user’ is a great defense,” Chajet said. “That’s how we’ve escaped liability for lots of clients.”
And, of course, companies can study the effects of the materials they’re using – but only to a point:
As we’ve noted before, research on nanotechnology safety has lagged behind the use of nanomaterials in consumer products. Three recent stories describe the potential rewards and risks of nanotechnology and some of the efforts to learn more about nanomaterials’ effects on humans and our environment.
Much of the use of nanotechnology in today’s consumer products is of questionable value to society – the tiny particles are used to make tennis rackets more lightweight, skin cream more sheer, and socks less smelly. But nanomaterials also hold great promise for making solar cells and water filtration, which can help tackle the global problems of climate disruption and insufficient clean drinking water. Researchers are also studying the use of nanomaterials in cancer therapies, and Health Affairs has just published an interview with Nelson Alderson, the associate commissioner for science at FDA’s Office of Science and Health Coordination, in which Alderson explains how nanoparticles can target disease (access is free online until 7/1).
Carole Bass’s article in Yale Environment 360 focuses on the risks of nanotechnology, and provides a list of concerns raised in the last month alone about the use of nanomaterials. Bass also gives a pithy explanation of why we ought to be cautious: