Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The provocative title was selected as a teaser for a study reported on August 19, 2009 in a European journal. The article can be found the European Respiratory Journal. Vol. 34, pp. 559-567. The study is clinical and examine 7 female Chinese workers diagnoses with lung damage. Two of the women died. They worked in a facility spraying a polyacrylic paste onto a polystyrene substrate. The work area had rudimentary exhaust ventilation which had broken down and (presumably) had gone unrepaired. ~30 nm diameter particles were found in fluid surrounding the lungs of the patients. Similar sized nanoparticles in the polyacrylic paste and the ventilation system were discovered. The authors claim the damage and deaths were attributed to nanoparticles. I will leave the technical examination of the study to others.

First of all this is an important set of findings. Despite weaknesses in design the results are potentially explosive especially if they are amplified by some public advocacy groups and the media.

As a former journalist I would advise a journalist covering this set of findings to ask the following four questions.

  1. 2 women are dead allegedly from inhaling nanoparticles. What assurances are there that a situation like this cannot happen here?
  2. As globalization accelerates and supply lines cross continents, what assurances can be given that finished products will be sold involving assembly and fabrication such as that which occurred in China?
  3. Even if efforts are taken to protect worker safety, here and abroad, how effective are hoods and masks in effectively reducing exposure to nanoparticles? How do we know they will be effective?
  4. Given the uncertainties associated with nanoparticles and their control and toxicity, why should we proceed with nanoparticle production when there are reasonably available substitutes? Wouldn’t it be more prudent to consider moratoria or a much slower pace of development?

As an argumentation specialist, there are two major issues (loci) here. The only way to frame the issue out of the hands of ultra-precautionists is to address both of them.

  1. The case for worker safety in the NanoWorkplace and
  2. The case for enforcement of regulations involves global trade involving nanoparticles.

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