Carbon nanotubes and silicon Nanowires (NWs) are prime candidates as building blocks for nanodevices.

Safety first

Nanoparticles and nanotubes might be harmful, but we don’t really know

When nanotechnology first came into the public eye in the early 2000s, there was much speculation over the safety of nanoparticles and nanotubes. The largely negative portrayal of nanotechnologies in the media led to scepticism among the public about whether the potential risks outweighed the benefits.

A 2004 Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report, which focused on the potential risks and uncertainties, aimed to answer the concerns over nanotechnologies. It concluded that not enough was known about how nanoparticles and nanotubes interact with the environment, and it had a massive impact.

The response by researchers was to ramp up studies to investigate the potential hazards of nano. In 2003, about 140 peer-reviewed papers were published that related to nanomaterial risk, whereas in 2013, this number was increased ten-fold.

Although this report is not solely responsible for this massive increase, it certainly had a part to play. This case is a good example of scientific sense being heard through the drone of unfounded speculation.

Despite this, some uncertainties remain about the safety of nanomaterials. Nanoparticles can interact unusually with biological systems. Of particular concern are carbon nanotubes, which – at high exposure – can be harmful. However, current research suggests that carbon nanotubes pose no greater risk than dust-laden environments.

Many new technologies face concerns over safety. What is important is establishing what’s fact and what’s fiction. Science should always provide a clear account of current knowledge. It’s important that this is then reflected accurately to the public, which isn’t always the case.

Lead image:

Carbon nanotubes and silicon nanowires (NWs) are prime candidates as building blocks for nanodevices.

Cinzia Casiraghi ‘NWs @Tate Modern’ CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Health, infection and disease, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development