Archive for the ‘Governance’ Category

I am working on a foresight project around the governance of new technologies and looking at lessons from nano in particular.

The most fun part of scenarios development is always the bit where you develop a dire situation where something goes badly wrong, disaster ensues and everything goes pear-shaped.  But unlike many such scenarios, we want to make it a scientifically plausible problem within 10-15 years – not just ‘a nano material is proven not to be what we thought it was sometime in the future – boom!’

I thought this would be fairly straightforward, after all we are working with and consulting some of the foremost independent scientists, toxicologists, nanomaterials specialists in the whole wide world.  I was also involved with a joint project with Prof Andrew Maynard at Michigan Risk Science Centre where we explored with a group of knowledgeable experts in different fields,  health and environmental risk based scenarios of specific plausible future nano and nano-bio enhanced products (see his blog here, I’m taking the pic!).  We struggled.   I still have nothing at all.

I rather lazily thought I would fall back on a nano silver, antibacterial proliferation scenario, which I now find is not really scientifically plausible either. CNT’s, everyone is all over that one, so not so plausible now.  Ti02 – also not realistically I am told. Cadmium selenide quantum dots? – maybe, but who would use them for what realistic purpose where exposure could be widespread?

I need help!  If you have anything plausible to offer, please do post it below.  If others feel these are either not plausible or something important has been missed, it would be great to hear that too!  I am obviously also conscious that I could be falling into some sort of cognitive trap of thinking everything’s OK when it isn’t!  This is tricky stuff!

If you are shy and would rather email me I’m on and I will post it here anonymously.

I have until early November to identify something and Andrew may be persuaded to comment on specifics if necessary.  Let rip people!


9 Responses to “Help – I need a plausible disaster scenario for a nano material!”

  1. Jenny Morber says:

    Hi Hilary,

    I received a PhD in Mat Sci and Eng in 2008 and worked as a grad student in a nanofabrication and nanotech development lab. The scary thing about nanomaterials is that we really don’t understand how they pair with the human body, and conventional intuition doesn’t serve us so well. For instance, it is likely that the geometry of the material may be as important as its chemistry. Silica nanoparticles may not be a problem, but silica nanorods and nanowires very well may be (for instance). There is starting to be some research on this, but we still have so much to learn.

    The analogy I can think of is asbestos. It’s those little shards that cause the problems. With that in mind, I took a few minutes to check out some research on inhalation toxicology of my lab’s favorite material – ZnO. I figured that particles were probably OK, but nanowires and rods (what we played with every day) were likely more toxic. I found a few papers that seem to show that even at small levels, ZnO nanoparticles can cause great harm to lung and mucus tissues. I bet that the nanowires are even worse, based on experiments I’ve read on CNTs.

    You may want to look at these studies to gauge the strength of their findings:

    Typical applications of these include sunscreens, electronic components, and medical device components, none of which probably pose a high risk for inhalation or widespread exposure. However, I recall reading a few stories on potential use of nanoparticles of some material to help purify air and even ID criminals when coated on walls in high traffic locations like airports. In a similar fashion, some have had the idea to add these to ‘self cleaning’ clothes. In this case, I believe the common material is titanium dioxide.

    There I would imagine that abrasion and age could brush off these particles, where they would be easily carried into the air.

    Perhaps you can find some papers that would tell you if aerosolized TiO2 would be a health risk? Or perhaps some are hoping to do similar things with ZnO?

    Another potential exposure hazard are the thousands of young people who currently work with these materials in labs, without precautions, because toxic effects are unknown. But that’s’ not as much fun…

    So, maybe these ideas will help you? I admit it’s been a while since I’ve been deeply embedded in the latest nano health research. But during my time as a researcher, I was fascinated by the depth of our ignorance of how these materials interact with our bodies.

  2. Hilary says:

    By email:

    Perhaps something to do with the decline in bee population?

    Thinking about NM release into environment ( ) and the recent discussions about diesel pollution with relation to colony collapse disorder……can’t think to relate it to one type of NM maybe one of the highest manufactured such as carbon black…

  3. Hilary says:

    By email:

    Have you got a scenario that is something along the lines simply of the ‘concerns’ clause already in the definition coming into play?

    “In specific cases and where warranted by concerns for the environment, health, safety or competitiveness the number size distribution threshold of 50 % may be replaced by a threshold between 1 and 50 %.

    This has real potential, and it may be interesting to hear what both industry and the regulator think about the consequences of this and what governance might do to avoid it coming about.

  4. Hilary says:

    From David Dilworth on Twitter:

    An as yet unrealized carcinogen nanomilled to size below NPC diffusion limit allowing genome access. Implausible to me tho

  5. Might there be some sort of chain reaction based on a nano bio prob. This lead me to think maybe something of that nature:

    I read about Cotard’s syndrome, which can be brought on by a reaction to Zovirax the cold sore treatment in people with renal problems. They think they are dead, or body parts don’t exist and scans show that the metabolic activity in part of the brain was so low as to resemble someone who was in a vegetative state. So they weren’t wrong! This is brought on by by products of the cold sore medicine which is usually removed via the kidneys, but because these people’s kidney’s don’t work, it doesn’t get take out. It is reversed now by dialysis removing the CMMG, which is one of the components the drug is broken down into.

    Might there be a plausible scenario of a by-product of a normal drug, interacting with a nano/bio drug which for reasons of the accessibility to the body brought on by the nanoscale, has a bizarre outcome like this?

    The fact that I can’t seem to get anyone to think of one, is actually now making me more suspicious than I was!

    Most people in the nano world think the big problem is biotech. The biotech’s think they have it all under control! Are we kidding ourselves, or as this shows, there are lots of odd stuff going on in relation to all types of products, nano may or may not be one of them.

  6. Hilary says:

    In conversation

    The main fear is that you make some changes to the environment which provides some unexpected response in something fairly benign, Cane toads or something. An evolutionary response, alters DNA, we didn’t initially know it had an effect until it is more entrenched. Then biological changes are noticed, but it is too late. Probably a biotech application, anti-bacterial resistance is credible. Garage synbio has the potential, people sitting in front of computers, designing life forms for fun, not connected at all to the real world.

  7. Andrew Maynard says:

    OK, I guess I should try adding something here as I said I would do my best. Bear in mind though that this isn’t much more than off the cuff thoughts.

    Plausible disasters with nanoscale materials – or any advanced material for that matter – are tough to imagine because we have so many biological and sociological safeguards to avoid disaster! And as we’ve learnt about how to avoid (or to mop up) rather nasty mistakes over the past century or so, we have only made it harder to come up with really juicy future disaster stories. That’s not to say that we won’t have to face unexpected problems – but we are good at learning how to avoid them.

    Thinking this through, there are three primary domains where scenarios might be explored: environmental harm, human health, and human safety. Of course, all three are connected, but separating them is helpful to think this through. For the sake of this exercise, I’ll just consider the human health domain. It’s worth looking at the other two at some point though.

    For something to cause harm to our bodies, it must be capable of getting into the body – so exposure is a big issue.

    Once in, there are a number classic red flags that suggest there might be potential for significant risk: If the material has a rapid and destructive impact on biological systems, organs, cells or molecules (i.e. it shows acute toxicity) it’s probably not a good idea to encourage high exposure. If the material persists in the body, and leads to a long term and possibly progressive local biological response, that isn’t good either (crystalline silica and asbestos come to mind). And if the material accumulates in the body over time (it is not excreted or metabolized) and exerts a cumulative impact, this is also bad news. There are other red flags as well, but these are big ones.

    Materials with a high acute toxicity are increasingly hard to get into commerce – the problems show up early on and action is usually taken to avoid exposure before exposures are catastrophically high. Even if the mechanism of toxicity is highly esoteric, harm is likely to show up early.

    That leaves materials that exert more subtle health impacts over time – where cumulative exposure is important, and/or persistence/bioaccumulation in the body.

    Here, many of the characteristics of materials that are likely to lead to harm are known – letting significant numbers of particles get into the body that are likely to be persistent and biologically disruptive is not a great idea. But we have evolved with such particles and our bodies have adapted to handle them. And so a “plausible disaster” material would need to either be radically different from the particles that are all around us, or would need to concentrate some aspect of these everyday particles that is particularly harmful. The trouble is, even the most pristine nanoscale particle materials are likely to be messy – and thus more like everyday nanoparticles – by the time they get into our bodies, unless they are intentionally designed to be introduced to the body. And because of this, with one or two exceptions – like asbestiform particles or particles made of highly toxic materials – it’s hard to imagine a disaster scenario that someone didn’t spot and avoid up front. It’d be like imagining someone inventing a new airplane and forgetting to include the left wing – not plausible because we know many of the rules that suggest something is not a good idea.

    Pushing the speculation out a bit further though, there is possibly a class of material that could raise concerns, and that is speculative materials that have the capacity to flip from an inert but persistent material in the body to an acutely toxic material.

    Imagine this – a nanoparticle with a core of toxic metal, covered with a low solubility and biologically inert shell. Now imagine that this particle can somehow get into the body and stay there – it accumulates. The initial toxicity would most likely be very low if the shell was biologically inert. But if over a period of years that shell dissolved and released the toxic core, you would have a scenario where there was a long latency period between exposure and health impacts.

    Or imagine a core-shell or mesoporous particle that was designed to disintegrate under specific conditions – a certain temperature say, or when irradiated with a specific frequency and intensity of non-ionizing radiation. This is getting extremely speculative, but imagine that the conditions for disintegration rarely exist within humans or the environment we are in. And imagine that these particles were used in an application that made exposure extremely widespread. Now imagine that in the occasional person the conditions for disintegration were met – maybe sometimes years after exposure. The particles in a person would then turn them into a walking time-bomb risk-wise.

    Of course, this is largely nonsense. It would be trivial to identify traits in particles like these that would lead to triggered release in humans – and to take measures to prevent exposure. But just imagine that this did occur. Say, these particles were used in a smart dust sensor that released a dye under high temperatures (above 45 Celsius) that allowed for vey cheap recording of high temperature events (although why you would do this I don’t know). Now imagine that the smart dust was so cheap and useful that it was spread around extremely widely – so many people were exposed. Now imagine that there was a flaw with the smart dust where after a few years some particles became activated at lower temperatures – maybe as low as 40 Celsius. And imagine that a small number of people were highly allergic to the dye if it was released inside their body in large quantities. You now have a scenario where a few years after exposure particles could be “switched on” in people with high fevers, with some of them suffering serious consequences as a result.

    Plausible? Almost definitely not. But this tends to be the route you go along if you want health impacts that are not anticipated, that are high impact, and that only come to light once there has been a very high level of exposure within society.

    Other routes to plausible disaster scenarios probably include unusual impacts from low level but long term exposures where the risks from low exposures are disproportionately high. But then we are struggling with exactly this issue with hormone-like chemicals at the moment – and it’s hard to imagine a class of advanced material that presents a significantly more complex challenge than those we are already struggling with chemicals here.

    An additional scenario is the accidental release of tons of a highly toxic nanomaterial – a freight train carrying hundreds of tons of long straight multiwalled carbon nanotubes crashes and explodes, releasing the nanotubes into the atmosphere. That would be a disaster. But the same would be the case if the freight train was carrying asbestos – or a highly toxic/carcinogenic chemical. Its hard to see how the resulting disaster scenario would be nanomaterial-specific.

    Sorry, realize as I type that this isn’t much help. Sorry!

  8. Mark Hartl says:

    This is a great piece and some of the responses are very useful. I recently had a grant proposal rejected, because the reviewers could not imagine a scenario (and admittedly, neither could I) where nanomaterials (in my case carbon nanotubes) would be present in sufficient quantities to cause a catastrophic effect. But do we really need a disaster before something is done? What about death by a thousand cuts – still death at the end without a single disastrous event (we’ve had enough examples of this: DDT, TBT and now maybe nicotinoids). Of course in most of these examples we have been able to establish causality, but retrospectively. We simply don’t understand the behaviour of nanomaterials in natural media (particularly seawater), as our latest paper shows ( It also shows that the nanoscale isn’t always maintained in these media and therefore searching for a nanospecific scenario may be a bit of a red herring (at least in marine environments). That the precautionary principle is being applied to nanomaterials can only be a good thing. But we need more imaginative ways of explaining the issue to funders, manufacurers and Governments, so that we can avoid yet another “creeping” disaster by a thousand cuts…..

  9. Andrew Maynard says:


    Great points – and I must confess that I suspect the potential environmental impacts of nanoscale materials are significantly more complex to wrap our minds round.

    The “death by a thousand cuts” issue is an important one, but I think must be tempered by the sizable inventory of what we do know about material-biology interactions and the likely relative importance of agents we know to be both active and synergistic. More importantly in my mind, the focus here should be impact as it arises from all exposures, not just a subset of exposures – and so we need integrated models that pull in natural, incidental and intentional substances that systems are exposed to.

    This also brings up the issue of the nature of exposures, which is partly why we focused on products and life cycle in the workshop Hilary mentioned. Even if a highly complex nanomaterial is used in a product, the dominant exposure profile may be very different as that material is mixed with many others, and undergoes significant physical and chemical transformations.

    To place this into context, imagine the release/exposure profile associated with a defunct iPhone 4 being “recycled” from an e-waste repository in a developing economy. Where would the original pristine nanoscale materials used in the phone rank in a list of potential human and environmental risks here?

    BTW, bad news on the grant proposal – especially as some forms of nanotubes are one of those materials that set off many of the accepted hazard and risk alarms for long term persistence and impacts

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