At the NYTimes, A Frame Shift for Nanotech?

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An artist's take on the "scary wonder" of nanotechnology.

The asbestos of tomorrow? As we wrote in our article last year at The Scientist, that's not the type of frame device that augurs well for public perceptions of nanotechnology. But it's exactly the perceptual lens by which the New York Times covers a new study appearing this week at Nature Nanotechnology. As Kenneth Chang opens the article, setting the train of thought for readers:

Nanotubes, one of the wonder materials of the new age of nanotechnology, may carry a health risk similar to that of asbestos, a wonder material of an earlier age that turned into a scourge after decades of use when its fibers were found to cause lung disease, researchers said Tuesday.

The asbestos comparison immediately places nanotechnology in the mental box of uncertainty and risky health impacts. For several years, consumer advocates have used asbestos as a familiar historical example to anchor interpretations of nanotech, but now this advocacy package has been given resonance by a study appearing this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. From the NY Times article:

A team of researchers reported that injecting nanotubes into the abdomens of mice induced lesions similar to those that appear on the outer lining of the lungs after the inhalation of asbestos...When foreign particles like smoke or dust land in the lungs, cells known as macrophages engulf the particles and clear them away. Some asbestos fibers are too long for the macrophages to handle, resulting in lesions. The researchers hypothesized that nanotubes would cause similar problems if they were long, but not if they were short or tangled into a ball...The mice injected with the short nanotubes or small carbon clumps did not develop disease. Those injected with long nanotubes or asbestos developed lesions on the tissue lining.

In its coverage, the LA Times ran this headline: "NANOTECHNOLOGY CANCER RISK FOUND." Alan Zarembo reinforces the frame of reference in his lede paragraps to the article:

Certain types of carbon nanotubes -- microscopic graphite cylinders used in a small but growing number of Space Age applications -- could pose a cancer risk similar to that of asbestos if inhaled, scientists reported Tuesday. Researchers found that mice injected with nanotubes quickly developed the same biological damage associated with early exposure to asbestos fibers, a known carcinogen. The study showed "the potential to cause harm if these things get into the air and into the lungs," said coauthor Andrew Maynard, a physicist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Shifting frames in coverage of nanotechnology also appeared yesterday at Canada's paper of record. As the Globe and Mail reports, the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy is pushing a focus on the public accountability dimensions of the technology. Emphasizing a regulatory vacuum, the advocacy group released a report this week calling for nanomaterials to be banned in foods and packaging, and for mandatory labeling in cosmetics, personal-care products and cleaning agents.

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I agree that the image portrayed about nanotechnology by the media exaggerates the potential problems with the technology and down-plays the possible benefits. I've been learning a lot more about nano lately through forums and lectures in my area and can understand why people are really excited about it, but why others are also suspicious. While nano promises to make things faster, lighter, stronger, more efficient in the short term, we don't know how it will affect health or the environment in the long term. Maybe nano is being framed in this "scary" way to make people think about the long-term effects of this technology. In my opinion it doesn't hurt to be cautious, especially when few studies have examined the possible health and environmental consequences of nanoparticles like the one referenced above. Would people have been so excited about asbestos if we had known the long-term health consequences of people exposed to the material? Probably not. I don't think there would be any harm in labelling products that use nanoparticles. Especially for products that are marketing directly to consumers. That way people can make the choice of whether or not to purchase and use those products. More than likely it won't affect what people buy, more or less like genetically modified foods, unless some concrete evidence that it is harmful is shown. So I wouldn't worry too much about losing nanotech jobs. I just think that giving people the information they need to make an informed purchase couldn't hurt.

i am doing a achool project and i was wondering if i could use the idea of nanotechnology to make a cure for crohns and cancer and all the other diseases that are cancerous.

By Gabrielle (not verified) on 31 Oct 2008 #permalink

The problem here is we have turned into a cotton wool society that is dead set on blocking access to developments that could change the face of tommorows world. These "health risks" are but minor risks that have been blown up by the paranoid members of the press and other social institutions.

I ask that we do not implement a ban in order to continiue the advancement of scientific technologies that will benefit us in the not too distant future

I Just Have to ask.....
Whats does it do?
can this hurt you?.

By Dannielle Howell (not verified) on 23 Dec 2008 #permalink

Is that photo real? If it is i wanna get one of them bug stuff. So coll .... Bring on the nanotech

By FanofPandora (not verified) on 09 Jan 2009 #permalink

you suck hairy balls11!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

By Anonymous (not verified) on 25 Feb 2009 #permalink

I m so intrested in nanotechnology if i got the chance to be the part of it iwill do lots of things

how does this affect natrual resourses

By kenneth pledger (not verified) on 16 Jun 2010 #permalink

hello sir, I am a student from engineering. And I have made a blog to store a knowledge. so I request to permit me if I can take articles from your world of articles! please permit me!

I'm not entirely sure such a ban would be a bad thing; it would appease those who fear nanotech, without actually banning any uses at all. So far as I know, no one wants to use nanotech in foods or packaging.

yikes. at this rate my degree will be made ilegal before its even complete. I may as well ditch Canada and head to North Korea now...
I wonder who uses nanotubes in food packaging... Nanomaterials is a huge feild, lumping it all together like this is kind of ridiculous (it'd be like banning paper because its made of fibres, just like asbestos). And, of course they don't mention the huge beinifits that nano offers, like better concrete, higher capacity hard drives, oil/water sensors, water purification. Hell, if you drive a Ford, the airbags are controled by nanoscale accelrometres. This is nanotech already benifiting society, and I've only heard of it at school. I live in the middle of a nano research hub and I never hear anything about nanotechnology in the mainstream, unless it can be made to sound dangerous.

This 'scary' image really needs to be kicked. While I aggree that new chemicals should be tested for safety (this isn't exactly a new idea, it sounds like the group wants the languge changed, so that 'new chemical' includes 'nano chemical') I certainly disaggree with the scary frame

PS pet peeve: STAIN RESISTANT FABRIC HAS *NOTHING* TO DO WITH NANOTECHNOLOGY (stain resistant thread has a thin layer of hydrophobic ("water-hating") plastic coated onto it. impressive? yes. nano? no.). I figured the Globe would know about that.

I agree that the image portrayed about nanotechnology by the media exaggerates the potential problems with the technology and down-plays the possible benefits. I�ve been learning a lot more about nano lately through forums and lectures in my area and can understand why people are really excited about it, but why others are also suspicious. While nano promises to make things faster, lighter, stronger, more efficient in the short term, we don�t know how it will affect health or the environment in the long term. Maybe nano is being framed in this �scary� way to make people think about the long-term effects of this technology. In my opinion it doesn�t hurt to be cautious, especially when few studies have examined the possible health and environmental consequences of nanoparticles like the one referenced above. Would people have been so excited about asbestos if we had known the long-term health consequences of people exposed to the material? Probably not. I don�t think there would be any harm in labeling products that use nanoparticles. Especially for products that are marketing directly to consumers. That way people can make the choice of whether or not to purchase and use those products. More than likely it won�t affect what people buy, more or less like genetically modified foods, unless some concrete evidence that it is harmful is shown. So I wouldn�t worry too much about losing nanotech jobs. I just think that giving people the information they need to make an informed purchase couldn�t hurt.

Newspapers make money selling fear of the unknown. Look at the headlines, thats not scientific, thats fear mongering. Everyday how many thousands of pounds of dust is generated by car and truck brakes? How about rubber from tires (you see it on the roadside everywhere). No newspaper is speaking to that! How about the exhaust byproducts from jet engines, deposited at 30,000 ft in our air? That takes time to rain out, no news on that, why? Now a new technology is about to give many possible outcomes and the news focuses on the problems first. Don't let ignorance of the facts keep us from learning how to develope technology. Almost eveything has a dual pourpose, how we use things is up to us. Newspapers are great a playing chicken little!

Well, this makes a lot of sense. The New York Times is owned by Rupert Murdock, whom also owns FOX NEWS. This whole story is nothing more than a scare tactic. Too bad, because I used to enjoy reading the New York Times.

i am reza bigdeli.you are very good

By reza bigdeli (not verified) on 16 Nov 2009 #permalink

Wow, "NANOTECHNOLOGY CANCER RISK FOUND." talk about simplification to the point of losing the point. Not very constructive. On the other hand, we DO need to be looking at the issues and potential risks now, so we can plan for and preempt them. It would be awesome if we could enjoy all the benefits of nanotech, without too many accidents and intentional detrimental misuse.
~Steve