This is part two of four in a primer on nanotechnology and the potential effects it will have on products liability litigation and risk management. The author is Nick Dudley, a third-year law student at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Nanotechnology promises to enhance existing technology in useful ways, and to make science fiction a reality. But, nanotech’s value must be weighed the consequences. Part 2 of this series explores the potential dangers of nanotech.
How Nanotechnology is Different than Naturally-Occurring Nanoparticles
Exposure to naturally occurring nanoparticles is not rare. Combustion typically produces some inhalable nanoparticles. Even most man-made nanoparticles, like those given off during industrial pollution, are not particularly dangerous in small doses. But, there is growing evidence that engineered nanoparticles are entirely different.
Naturally occurring nanoparticles and even anthropogenic nanoparticles that are byproducts of chemical processes are water soluble. The particles tend to agglomerate, naturally collecting and forming bigger substances. The human body is naturally prepared to deal with and filter out those particles. Because the particles are water soluble, they tend to dissipate quickly and are ultimately removed from the body.
In sharp contrast, Albert Lin notes “engineered nanomaterials tend to persist for longer periods as nanoparticles, thanks to special coatings designed to prevent agglomeration and to preserve the particles’ unique properties.” Engineered nanomaterials are designed to stay in their configuration which nullifies the body’s defenses. Additionally, virtually all the properties that make nanomaterials useful, also make them dangerous. Nanomaterials’ high surface area ratio and small size make them toxic because a high surface area corresponds to a greater number of “reactive groups” at the surface. Lin describes the impact - surface reactive groups “play an important role in toxic reactions by generating reactive oxygen species that may damage DNA, proteins, and cell membranes.” The size of nanomaterials allows them virtually unlimited access to the body’s systems and passageways, since natural filters are avoided. In fact, engineered nanomaterials can even penetrate the blood-brain barrier, meaning that the toxic materials could land themselves in the most sensitive area of the human body.
Studies of ambient ultrafine particles have shown that they are capable of causing serious health problems ranging from inflammation to heart attacks. It is unclear whether nanomaterials would cause the same problems, but it seems likely. The dangerousness of these small particles isn’t related to what they are made of or their mass, as much as the surface areas they present. At least one study concludes that nanomaterials may be worse. The study, published in Nanotechnology and the Environment, compared the effects of quartz dust, a serious occupational hazard, to carbon nanotubes. At least in mice, the study concluded that carbon nanotubes produce greater inflammation and more serious lesions.
Recent Study Links Nanotechnology to the Deaths of Two Factory Workers
Recently, nanomaterials were linked to the deaths of two Chinese factory workers and the severe injuries of several others. The women worked in a facility spraying a polyacrylic paste onto a polystyrene substrate. It appears that their ventilation equipment was damaged. The Chinese women have the dubious honor of being the first publicized deaths attributable to nanotechnology.
No scientists working with nanomaterials have yet manifested symptoms of disease related to nanoparticles. But there are problems with tracking illnesses that result from nanomaterials. Unfortunately, it is likely that negative effects are the result of cumulative exposure. Additionally, many people who work with nanomaterials probably are not aware of it. Finally, workers, consumers, and doctors likely have no idea what to look for since companies are not required to disclose the existence of nanomaterials and they are generally not discernible absent the aid of the most sophisticated tools.
Nanotechnology could also have a dramatic effect on the environment at large. Nanomaterials are probably dangerous to other organisms for the reason they are dangerous to humans. One study (conducted by Eva Oberdorster) has linked nanomaterials to brain damage in bass. Microorganisms are particularly at risk, which is troubling because microorganisms are at the very bottom of the food chain.
Overall, the point is that while nanotechnology is very promising, it comes with risks. Unfortunately, the specific risks have not been readily identified. It is hard to say with any certainty which types of nanomaterials will cause problems or how the problems will manifest. Society at large is not in a particularly good position to monitor the effects, and we are all left waiting on underfunded and less than glamorous research to fill a serious void in our collective knowledge on the subject. At this point objective risk-assessment is difficult if not impossible. The question for products liability attorneys and risk managers is what to do in the mean time.
- Nick Dudley
Part 3 will suggest a strategy for products liability attorneys and nanotechnology insiders.
-Swiss Re, Nanotechnology: Small Matters, Many Unknowns 13 (2004)
-The Royal Society & The Royal Academy of Engineering, Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties 5 (2004)
-Lin, Albert, Size Matters: Regulating Nanotechnology. Harvard Environmental Law Review, Vol. 31, 2007. UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 90. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=934635
-Gunter Oberdorster et al., Nanotoxicology: An Emerging Discipline Evolving from Studies of Ultrafine Particles, 113 ENVTL. HEALTH PERSP. 832-3, 835 (2005)
-Andrew D. Maynard & Eileen D. Kuempel, Airborne Nanostructured Particles and Occupational Health, 7 J. NANOPARTICLE RESEARCH 587, 592-93 (2005)
-Chiu-Wing Lam et al., Toxicity of Single-Wall Carbon Nanotubes in the Lungs of Mice Exposed by Intratracheal Instillation, in NANOTECHNOLOGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT at 60-5.
-Berube, David, NanoHype: Nanotechnology Implications and Interactions http://nanohype.blogspot.com/2009/08/nanoparticles-responsible-for-deaths-of.html.
-Mark R. Wiesner & Vicki L. Colvin, Environmental Implications of Emerging Nanotechnologies, in ENVIRONMENTALISM & THE TECHNOLOGIES OF TOMORROW: SHAPING THE NEXT INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION 41, 48-49 (Robert Olson & David Rejeski eds., 2005).
-Eva Oberdorster, Manufactured Nanomaterials (Fullerenes, C60) Induce Oxidative Stress in the Brain of Juvenile Largemouth Bass, 112 ENVTL. HEALTH PERSPECTIVES 1058, 1058-62 (2004)
-Gunter Oberdorster et al., Nanotoxicology: An Emerging Discipline Evolving from Studies of Ultrafine Particles, 113 ENVTL. HEALTH PERSP. 827 (2005).