What you can't see might hurt you, but probably not.
Nanomaterials-- materials with at least one dimension smaller than 0.1 micrometres-- are causing a stir in the scientific community. Novel uses for nanotechnology are being discovered that exploit their unusual chemistry, including drug delivery systems and quantum computers, but people are starting to question what the risks are.
Nanomaterials have different properties than their normal-sized counterparts that change the way they interact with living things. Specifically, something about nanomaterials could make them more risky than their parent materials.
"I think the answer to that is no or maybe no," said University of Calgary nanoscience program director Dr. David Cramb. "It for sure isn't yes."
However, lines have been drawn connecting nanomaterials and things such as asbestos or genetically mod- ified organisms. The action group Erosion, Technology and Concentration even called for a moratorium on further research of nanomaterials until policies have been created to deal with them. According to Cramb, this is partially due to the focus on the toxicity of nanoparticles.
"In both media and scientific literature, it is more interesting if a toxicology study on nanomaterials finds some degree of nanotoxicity," said Cramb. "Thus negative studies are more likely to find their way into the public perception, as they should. However, this may give people the false impression that many or most nano- materials are toxic and unhealthy."
Cramb believes nanomaterials are no more dangerous than other substances found in everyday life, if handled properly.
"In your cell phone there's semiconductor material-- gallium arsenide," Cramb said. "Arsenic can be quite hazardous. Risk equals hazard times exposure. One needs to assess both the hazard, i.e. when the material is inside the organism and the likelihood of the organism being exposed. Therefore, hazardous materials may be very low risk if no organisms are likely to be exposed to them."
Cramb believes that ETC's moratorium on research is too extreme and policy should derive from current research.
"Nanotech policy should be based on concrete evidence, not speculation," he said.
Cramb spoke at Tuesday night's Science Cafe alongside University of Alberta Health Law Institute research fellow Lori Sheremeta regarding nanotoxicity.
"The speakers are there to kind of set the stage, get as many people thinking about issues as possible," he said.