(November 17, 2010) -- While offering great promise in a host of new applications, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) could be harmful to humans and a new risk review suggests product designers and others should provisionally treat CNTs "as if" they are hazardous.
Because environmental and health information on CNTs is incomplete and sometimes conflicting, an "anticipatory governance" approach to the technology is needed, according to Mark Philbrick of the Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems at the University of California, Berkeley. Anticipatory governance is an approach designed to support decision makers where there is uncertainty about safety, a common situation when managing emerging technologies.
The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and conclusions are detailed in Philbrick's article, "An Anticipatory Governance Approach to Carbon Nanotubes," in the November issue of the journal Risk Analysis published by the Society for Risk Analysis. The entire November issue is devoted to risk analysis articles related to nanotechnology.
An anticipatory approach is particularly important until the toxicity and behavior of CNTs in the environment are better understood, especially as they can remain airborne for extended periods, and share some characteristics with asbestos. While a few rodent studies have found similarities between the health effects of inhaling both substances, there is not enough data to draw firm conclusions.
The article notes the promise held out by CNTs is immense: some types conduct electricity and heat better than copper, others are stronger than steel while weighing less than aluminum, and yet others could be used in targeted drug delivery. These properties could find uses in aircraft frames, sensors, and electrical transmission. Nevertheless, treating them "as if" they are hazardous is a prudent course of action given uncertainty about their potential health consequences, the author said.
Risk Analysis: An International Journal is published by the nonprofit Society for Risk Analysis (SRA). SRA is a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, scholarly, international society that provides an open forum for all those who are interested in risk analysis. Risk analysis is broadly defined to include risk assessment, risk characterization, risk communication, risk management, and policy relating to risk, in the context of risks of concern to individuals, to public and private sector organizations, and to society at a local, regional, national, or global level. www.sra.org