Novelty and nanotechnology are deeply intertwined. The search for nanostructure-enabled materials has driven research funding in nanotechnology for well over a decade now; the exploitation of novel properties has underpinned the commercialization of nanomaterials; and concerns over potential risks has stimulated widespread studies into what makes these materials harmful. Yet ‘novelty’ is an ephemeral quality, and despite its close association with nanotechnology, it may be an unreliable guide to ensuring the long-term safety of materials that emerge from the field. If this is the case, do we need to find alternative approaches to developing advanced materials and products that are safe by design?
I was taken aback- to say the least – by an article from the New York Times that crossed my Twitter feed today that suggested wearable electronics like the new Apple Watch could be has harmful as smoking: Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes? http://t.co/JvM1mnR2Tz — NYT Styles (@NYTStyles) March 18, 2015 (Tweet has since been deleted)
Last Thursday, the second annual University of Michigan Innovation In Action competition concluded, with six stunning student pitches for startups that could make a significant dent on the health and well-being of communities. It was a great example of what can be achieved at the intersection of public health, entrepreneurship, and the creativity and energy that students can bring to real-world problems.
In response to pressure from the advocacy group As You Sow, Dunkin’ Brands has announced that it will be removing allegedly “nano” titanium dioxide from Dunkin’ Donuts’ powdered sugar donuts. As You Sow claims there are safety concerns around the use of the material, while Dunkin’ Brands cites concerns over investor confidence. It’s a move that further confirms the food sector’s conservatism over adopting new technologies in the face of public uncertainty. But how justified is it based on what we know about the safety of nanoparticles?
On July 31, 2012, a massive blackout swept across northeast India. At 1 pm local time, a power line in the state of Madhya Pradesh became overloaded and tripped out. As the supply grid struggled to pick up the slack, other lines went down. By 1:03, a cascading series of failures had pushed the electricity supply grid into a state of chaos, resulting in the largest blackout in human history. More than an estimated 600 million people lost power temporarily as a result of the collapse.
Yesterday, I posted a piece examining the oft-quoted mortality rate for measles of one to two deaths per thousand cases of infection. Today, I want to look at what can be learned from more recent and more comprehensive dataset – this one from the 2008-2011 measles outbreak in France.
The challenges of governing emerging technologies are highlighted by the World Economic Forum in the 2015 edition of its Global Risks Report. Focusing in particular on synthetic biology, gene drives and artificial intelligence, the report warns that these and other emerging technologies present hard-to-foresee risks, and that oversight mechanisms need to more effectively balance likely benefits and commercial demands with a deeper consideration of ethical questions and medium to long-term risks.
The chances are that, if you follow news articles about cancer, you’ll have come across headlines like “Most Cancers Caused By Bad Luck” (The Daily Beast) or “Two-thirds of cancers are due to “bad luck,” study finds” (CBS News). The story – based on research out of Johns Hopkins University – has grabbed widespread media attention. But it’s also raised the ire of science communicators who think that the headlines and stories are, in the words of a couple of writers, “just bollocks”.
Before you ask, yes, this is a post about risk. And no, I’m not talking about the dangers of immortalizing the star of Terminator Genisys‘ real-life biological brain. But to begin somewhere near the beginning.
Products with the label “BPA-free” have become ubiquitous on store shelves in recent years. It’s a trend that has been driven by consumer concerns that the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA, may be harmful at low doses. Yet a recent study suggests that the label may mislead consumers into thinking that “free” means “safer” — even when there’s a chance that the substances used to substitute for BPA may also be harmful. The study is one of the first to explore how consumer responses to uncertainty and ambiguity in risk information may lead to “regrettable substitutions” — the replacement of one material with another that is potentially less safe.
In 2004, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (RS-RAE) in the UK published the report Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties . At the time it was widely speculated that the report arose from concerns expressed by Prince Charles over the possibility that nanotechnology could lead to a ‘grey goo’ scenario where self-replicating ‘nanobots’ destroy life as we know it . Outlandish as the alleged motivation was (and Prince Charles was quick to downplay reports of his grey goo concerns ), the resulting report set the pace for the next decade of global research into the potential impacts of nanotechnology — and how to avoid them.
Four years ago I posted Professor Robert Winston’s “Scientist’s Manifesto” on 2020 Science. Having just gone back and read this, it still resonate deeply with me – so I’m reposting it in the hope that it will also resonate with others…
How do we chart a path forward toward the effective and responsible development and use of new technologies? For the next two years, the World Economic Forum Meta-Council on Emerging Technologies will be tackling this and other questions as it develops ways of supporting informed decisions on technology innovation in today’s rapidly changing world.
On September 23, the Food and Drug Administration sent Rima Laibow and Ralph Fucetola at the Natural Solutions Foundation a warning letter claiming that their allegedly nano (colloidal) silver based “Dr. Rima Recommends™ The Silver Solution” product violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDC Act).
Measles is one of the leading causes of death amongst children worldwide. In 2012, an estimated 122,000 people died of the disease according to the World Health Organization – equivalent to 14 deaths every hour. Yet talk to parents about this highly infectious disease, and the response is often a resounding “meh”. Why is this?
Pick up a jar of chili powder, and the chances are it will contain a small amount of fumed silica – an engineered nanomaterial that’s been around for over half a century. The material – which is formed from microscopically small particles of amorphous silicon dioxide – has long been considered to be non-toxic.
“This year alone, there have been 17,000 cases of meningitis in Nigeria, with nearly 1,000 deaths”. It’s a statement that jumped out at me watching a video from this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival by my former University of Michigan Public Health student Utibe Effiong.
Materials and how we use them are inextricably linked to the development of human society. Yet amazing as historic achievements using stone, wood, metals and other substances seem, these are unbelievably crude compared to the full potential of what could be achieved with designer materials.
I consider myself to be pretty self-aware. It’s an illusion of course, but one I am usually blissfully ignorant of. Until some insightful reporter shatters it! This was me a few days ago. I was talking with a journalist about science communication and the perils and pitfalls faced by young scientists. As I got into my groove talking about scientists and communication, she interrupted me and asked, “do you think there many scientists that hold such unusual views?” (or words to that effect).
What has the Maker Movement got to do with public health? Quite a lot as it turns out, as I explore in the latest Risk Bites video. This in turn was inspired by being invited to talk at the inaugural We Make Health Fest in Ann Arbor (August 16 – please join us if you can!).
When you’re facing a life or death situation, what do the odds mean – to you personally? As Brian Zikmund-Fisher from the University of Michigan School of Public Health pointed out to Robert Siegel on NPR yesterday, “We’re never 95 percent alive. We either live or die. We experience outcomes”.
Over the past few weeks, revelations of potentially dangerous errors in US federal labs handling pathogens have placed health and safety high on the national agenda. In June, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced as many as 75 of its staff may have been exposed to anthrax due to safety issues at one of its labs. At the beginning of July, vials of smallpox virus were found in an unsecured room at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Then earlier this week came the revelation that in the same room were over 300 vials containing pathogens such as dengue virus, influenza, and the bacterium that causes Q fever.