I was watching a swedish/norwegian professor on TV who was estolling the virtues of the brave new nano world on friday. Nanotech will do everything apparently and alter how most anything manufactured interacts with our persons and personal bits. She meant the latter in a more formal medical way, but here in lies my take on nanotech.
Nanotech can be in some areas, the new marie curie playing with the "wonder stuff" which breifly radioactive material was.
My issue is that with many applications we will create carbon, silicon and metallic based nanoparticles which are not biodegradable and in their initial applications to products require no bio-safety testing.
Issues, which I will go into with explanations of my concerns later, include
- Chronic Allergies
- Subcell, cell-surface and perimembrane biological disruptions ( READ CANCER caused by nano technology)
- Other issues with the non specific immune system reactions
- Issues with how natural process in the body and environment clean up, transport or horde nanoparticles
- In respect of the last, long term and unanticipated bio environmental dammage caused by nano particles
Why do I set such an alarmist tone?
Let's think about an area which you may call "micro" technology, or rather the seemingly wonderful technology which contained a pandoras box of issues eminating from the micrometer level.
Picture if you will, mid way through the last century and films promoting the wonder stuff which was fireproof and could be woven into pipe lagging or even fire proof suits for workers. You've got the picture: Asbestos.
The problem on a micro scale with asbestos was known about - roman slaves in their rock-wool mines died mysteriously young- some of what we now call asbestosis- the scarring of the lungs caused by massive exposure to the fibres as dust.
But asbestos held a far more worrying threat which casts it's shadow down to nanotechnology today. In theory just a single fibre of asbestos ( five microns long and less than three microns ø) can cause a rare disease which in fact is the very one from which Cancer ( the crab) derives it's name. The insidious "mesothelioma". In advanced stages this manifests itself as inflamed, red strands of new tissue radiating from just below the rib cage through the ribs, a bit liek a king crab. The "new growth" is of course what we call generically cancerous tissue.
The exact biological mechanism is known and for further reading, but to summarise the small fibre is picked up by a type of roving immune cell which tries to engulf and destroy it, only to be empaled upon a two ended spear, then itself becoming a dangerous chemical bomb filled with free radicals and enzymes otherwise threatening to normal lung cells. It soon impales a lung cell and seeds a cancer.
Okay, this exact mechanism is maybe unlikely from nanoparticles which are very much smaller. BUT it shows how an inert, non biological particle eliceted a disease which would still today be unanticipated if it were a new substance.
Cellular machinery is biochemical I hear you say, not prone to mechanical interuption. Well that is not the case. Intracellular machinery utilses biochemicals ( primerily ATP) as a fuel to effect many mechanical operations, and I believe most of these remain un-illuciated today.
In ways analogous to those which we see when asbestos fibres interupt a biological, primary immune mechanism so could some nanoparticles do the following:
- Block up cell membrane mechanisms- receptors, transport channels, formation of new cells- distuptions to all of which are linked to cancer.
- Interfere with intercellular mechanisms: mecahnical 'substrates' cells grow along- causing defects in foetuses- or disrupting the immune system in this way.
- Illiciting or interfering directly with antibody mediated immune response; antibodies interact at the nano and pico / åmstrong levels. People of course have allergies to fairly inert substances like copper, cobalt, chromium. This happens at the nano level.
Will nano-techies not design us out of this issue, or will the particles not be contained or washed off easily?
Nanotechnologies, which are not a food or medical device, require no biological safety testing. In any case there may be new problems which are not currently screened for in tests, or cancers, cell damage or unborn defects may take longer to show than current cell based assay and animal testing would detect.
We can choose not to buy nano, just like GMO, right?
WRONG inert, non degradable nano particles will start to build up in our environment and bodies after it is widely employed in paints, cleaning substances, coatings and in of course clothing or medical devices ( laterly will get some level of saftey, but that is not gauiranteed if deiseases take years to incubate or accumlation occurs by unknown processes)
So what do I recommend: At the moment there should be a biohazard due dilligence for any nanotechnology which is
- not proven compeletly biodegraded, by a safe mechanism to safe residues
- non encapsulated, non covalently bound to a larger substrate - ie potentially airborne
- anything to be used in proximity to the skin, airways etc MUST be trialled at least by ADMETOX.
- An immediate moritorium on production of paints, coatings etc where the above are not satisfied.