The first is that some nanotoxicological effects are the direct result of new nanotechnologies: There is a strong ethical argument that can be made that as humans develop new technologies we must also -- and as simultaneously as possible -- develop strategies to counter any detrimental effects of the new technologies. (This is a corollary of the second lesson of global warming.) This could also be seen as a sort of corollary of the Hippocratic Oath: If at first you can do no harm than as quickly as possible move to fix the harm that we as humans have caused.
But there is another aspect of nanotoxicology that fascinates a number of job seekers, which is the fact that nanoparticles act in ways that cannot be easily predicted from larger particles. This makes nanotoxicology in many ways a complex new that needs a number of different types of workers in it, including both those with primarily technological skills and those with primarily human relations skills -- as well as, of course, those who are good at both sets of skills.
Nanoparticles seem to have some different properties from larger particles that are known to have pathogenic effects, like asbestos or quartz. These differences seem to be a result of their size. Nanoparticles have much larger surface area to unit mass ratios which in some cases may lead to greater pro-inflammatory effects (in, for example, lung tissue). In addition, some nanoparticles seem to be able to translocate from their site of deposition to distant sites such as the blood and the brain. This has resulted in a sea-change in how particle toxicology is viewed- instead of being confined to the lungs, nanoparticle toxicologists study the brain, blood, liver, skin and gut. Nanotoxicology has revolutionised particle toxicology and rejuvenated it.
The following diagram suggests some of the complicated ways in which nanoparticles can affect human health and some of the ways in which nanotoxicologists can begin to derive strategies to combat the potential harmful effects of nanoparticles.
If we look only at the element of "risk characterization," for example, we can see that there are both technological and social issues at work: The effectiveness of control (for example) of the potential dangers of nanotoxicology arise from both technological as well as human agents. Swiss scientists have been active in this push to create mechanisms -- both technological and cultural -- to limit any possible damage from human-produced nanoparticles. They have joined with researchers from across Europe and North America to create collaborative networks to investigate -- and, when necessary, remediate -- the consequences of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology provides the opportunity for enabling new products that could meet a wide range of societal needs, but concerns over potential environmental, health and safety impacts of these materials may limit their adoption. Multiple organizations, including the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Nanotechnology Conference for Communication and Cooperation (INC), have highlighted the importance of international collaboration to accelerate understanding of nanotechnology implications for society.
The field of nanotoxicology is so new that it is very much still in the process of being defined and anyone entering it in the next several years will have the chance to help determine in what directions the field will go. Not only are there very few answers yet in the field of nanotoxicology, the questions themselves have still barely been asked, as the following overview of the field suggests:
The potential exposure routes of a nanoparticle vary during its lifecycle. During the manufacture of a product, free engineered nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes might be present in the air during production, or might be released into the environment with waste materials or during production accidents. Product use could lead to exposure to engineered nanoparticles through the skin (cosmetic products), ingestion (food ingredients or packaging) or injection (medical procedures). After regular use, recycling or degradation of products might release engineered nanoparticles into the environment and lead to high concentrations in water, air or soil, which in turn could lead to exposure through skin, inhalation or ingestion.
There is a wide range of possible jobs suggested in the description above: Nanoparticles are finding their ways into more and more parts of our world, and this has happened with very little oversight.
It Will All Come Out in the Wash
Nanotechnology has crept into so many corners of our lives that most of us are not even aware of the ramifications of these technologies. Fortunately, a number of firms are concerned that work being done at the edges of the known technological universe is being done with a strong ethical element so that humanity may benefit from nanotechnology rather than suffer from it. Or at least that we may benefit more than we suffer.
For there is significant potential for harm to crop up in nearly-impossible-to-image contexts produced by nanotechnology. For example, nanoparticles of silver (or nanosilver) is now added to everything from socks to bandages because of its ability to reduce odor as well as its antibacterial properties. This fact might seem to be relatively innocuous, but scientists have found that these nanoparticles of silver can be washed out of items such as socks and into the water supply, where they may become toxic. Researchers have found that "silver nanoparticles can travel through the wastewater treatment system and can reach the aquatics, where these nanoparticles can have adverse effect on aquatic organisms living in the water."
The researchers in the above study concluded the following:
People at large are not aware about the ingredients present in the consumer products they buy. Researchers further suggest that unlike food labeling, clothes containing silver nanomaterials should also be labeled so that the users can identify the ingredients present in the product they are buying and their possible threat to environment and humans.
The above description provides, in its description of a small problem, a suggestion of the entire realm of possible nanotechnological research and work: How can we use nanoparticles to make our world a better place while ensuring -- through science, technology, and social change -- that this technology is not Promethian in its consequences. Women can -- and should -- be at the center of this effort.
Bainbridge, William and Mihail Roco (Eds.) Managing Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno Innovations: Converging Technologies in Society. New York, Springer, 2006.
Barhard, Amanda. "Nanohazards: Knowledge Is Our First Defense." Nature Materials 5, pp. 245-8.
Berger, Michael. Toxicology - from coal mines to nanotechnology, http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=1382.php
Environmentalists are worried about the possible risk associated with Nanosilver,