May 24, 2007

Breathing in Buckyball Carbon

The following is excerpted (in green fonts) from an article
in the The New Atlantis.

Nanoethics as a Discipline?
by Adam Keiper

Rice University nanotechnologist Vicki Colvin, the director
of the university’s Center for Biological and Environmental
Nanotechnology, described in 2002 how, “in a field with
more than 12,000 citations a year,” her team had been
“stunned to discover no prior research in developing
nanomaterials risk assessment models and no toxicology
studies devoted to synthetic nanomaterials.”
In the years since then, dozens of studies have begun
to examine those problems, including a widely reported
study showing that buckyballs—a type of manmade
carbon molecule—could cause brain damage in fish.
But the research done so far has only scratched the
surface of potential nanotoxicology questions.
Many unanswered questions remain. Which nanomaterials
are biodegradable and which persist in the body or the
environment? Some nanoparticles kill microorganisms;
could their increased production and eventual dispersal
disrupt food chains? How can factory workers best be
protected from exposure to nanomaterials that could
damage their lungs or other organs? In a recent lecture
at the National Academy of Sciences, Harvard
researcher George Whitesides pointed to the deliciously
convoluted acronym ADME/Tox/PK/PD—for adsorption,
distribution, metabolism, excretion, toxicology,
pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics—and warned,
“We don’t know anything about that. We don’t know
about any of those things for nanoparticles.”
Such questions would be complex enough if just one
kind of substance were involved, but the variety and
many different applications of nanoparticles and
nanomaterials make the study of their health and
environmental effects bewilderingly complicated.

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