Nanotoxicology is the study of the toxicity of nanomaterials. Because of quantum size effects and large surface area to volume ratio, nanomaterials have unique properties compared with their larger counterparts.
Nanotoxicology is a branch of bionanoscience which deals with the study and application of toxicity of nanomaterials. Nanomaterials, even when made of inert elements like gold, become highly active at nanometer dimensions. Nanotoxicological studies are intended to determine whether and to what extent these properties may pose a threat to the environment and to human beings. For instance, Diesel nanoparticles have been found to damage the cardiovascular system in a mouse model.
Human health and safety
Calls for tighter regulation of nanotechnology have arisen alongside a growing debate related to the human health and safety risks associated with nanotechnology. The Royal Society identifies the potential for nanoparticles to penetrate the skin, and recommends that the use of nanoparticles in cosmetics be conditional upon a favorable assessment by the relevant European Commission safety advisory committee. Andrew Maynard also reports that ?certain nanoparticles may move easily into sensitive lung tissues after inhalation, and cause damage that can lead to chronic breathing problems?.
Carbon nanotubes ? characterized by their microscopic size and incredible tensile strength ? are frequently likened to asbestos, due to their needle-like fiber shape. In a recent study that introduced carbon nanotubes into the abdominal cavity of mice, results demonstrated that long thin carbon nanotubes showed the same effects as long thin asbestos fibers, raising concerns that exposure to carbon nanotubes may lead to mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the lungs caused by exposure to asbestos).Given these risks, effective and rigorous regulation has been called for to determine if, and under what circumstances, carbon nanotubes are manufactured, as well as ensuring their safe handling and disposal.
The Woodrow Wilson Centre?s Project on Emerging Technologies conclude that there is insufficient funding for human health and safety research, and as a result there is currently limited understanding of the human health and safety risks associated with nanotechnology. While the US National Nanotechnology Initiative reports that around four percent (about $40 million) is dedicated to risk related research and development, the Woodrow Wilson Centre estimate that only around $11 million is actually directed towards risk related research. They argued in 2007 that it would be necessary to increase funding to a minimum of $50 million in the following two years so as to fill the gaps in knowledge in these areas.
The potential for workplace exposure was highlighted by the 2004 Royal Society report which recommended a review of existing regulations to assess and control workplace exposure to nanoparticles and nanotubes. The report expressed particular concern for the inhalation of large quantities of nanoparticles by workers involved in the manufacturing process.
Stakeholders concerned by the lack of a regulatory framework to assess and control risks associated with the release of nanoparticles and nanotubes have drawn parallels with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (?mad cow?s disease'), thalidomide, genetically modified food, nuclear energy, reproductive technologies, biotechnology, and asbestosis. In light of such concerns, the Canadian based ETC Group have called for a moratorium on nano-related research until comprehensive regulatory frameworks are developed that will ensure workplace safety.
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