Professor compares nanomaterials to asbestos
airborne killer, asbestos, by a high-profile chemistry professor at
the BA Festival of Science in York.
During a talk on nanotechnology and the environment, Tony Ryan, director of the Polymer Centre at the University of Sheffield, compared carbon nanotubes, otherwise known as buckyballs, to the construction material. "One of the potential dangers with carbon nanotubes is: are we creating a new asbestos? The asbestos response is based on the shape of the particle. Part of the issue is in the shape of the molecule and how they're introduced," said Ryan. Asbestos fibers are 10 nanometres wide and can therefore be categorised as nanoparticles because nanoparticles are defined as particles that measure less than 100 nanometres in any dimension. It is asbestos fibres rather than asbestos itself that causes serious health problems because they can become airborne and lodge themselves in the skin or lungs. Asbestos fibres are able to cause damage because of their size. Although there has been no conclusive evidence to suggest that the size of carbon nanotubes poses serious health risks, Ryan advised caution with regards to cosmetic applications. The professor said: "I wouldn't put buckyballs anywhere near my face." Despite widespread anxiety about the use of nanomaterials there are 22 sunscreens and 77 cosmetic products, on the market that have been developed using nanotechnology, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. Lack of testing combined with the growing popularity of nanotechnology has led Friends of the Earth to call for the suspension of its use until its safety has been established. However, in a report on the nanotechnology question published in July, the FDA said current scientific evidence does not show that products containing nanoparticles pose a more significant health risk than those without. It therefore decided not to recommend a system of compulsory labelling regarding the presence of nanoparticles in beauty products.