Monday, August 24, 2009

IS NANOTECHNOLOGY NEWSWORTHY?

Is nanoscience newsworthy? Why would the media fail to cover a study (Song et al previous post) whose findings allege deaths from exposure to nanoparticles? Is this about the media per se, the subject matter per se, or those responsible for posting information about nanoscience and nanotechnology. The National Nanotechnology Amendments Act of 2009 is working its way out of the Senate commerce Committee. The Snowe/Kerry version may go head to head with Hutchinson's. In the end we will need appropriations as well as authorizations and that may necessitate some public support. That prospect may be a pipedream.

Recently some of the NanoNews feeds stopped. Julia moved on. UCSB stopped sending its news updates. Meridian stopped as well. We decided that while NanoWerk, Nanovip, NanotechNews, Topix Nanotechnology News, AtoZ Nanotechnology, Nanotechnology.com, NanoTechWire.com, and the Nano Science and Technology Institute are compiling information, the public was once again on the short end of the stick. While there are professional journals, when the public learns about nanoscience and nanotechnology it is after a lot of work searching for the information or the result of some negative reporting.

We are going to continue to report summaries of important news reports on this blog interspersed with other commentaries. Check here regularly and you can read Nano News Summaries: Breakthrough Newsworthy and Honorable Mentions. Two graduate students from NCSU and PCOST (with funding from the NSF) will be compiling this material and Berube will edit.

Berube is preparing a report and will be presenting at the 4S meeting this semester that tries to explain why the public with knowledge about nanotechnology hasn’t increased appreciably from 2004 to 2007, I began positing rationales: inadequate research designs, reporting tails (2004 and 2007 as tails to a normal frequency distribution), and thresholding (we’ve reached the population with interest), this phenomenon is intriguing. he would have liked to complete a metanalysis but getting my hands on all the research data has become problematic for many reasons, so he will do a metanalysis and will report here.

Is it important for the public to attend to information on nanoscience?
Is anyone really making an effort to get the public involved? Or is all this talk about public engagement simply “smoke and mirrors”?
Is the public wholly indifferent to what is happening in nanoscience?


So we tracked what has been going on with media coverage of the Song article on Chinese women exposed to nanoparticles. The purpose was to gathering evidence to demonstrate amplification of the news versus the replication of news on the internet. We tracked message dissemination via Google search at intervals of 24, 48 and 96 hours after the original Song article was published. What was found was that a great many hits found by Google for the search [“Chinese women” nanoparticles] yielded repetitive results. The majority of hits found by Google were replications of a singular article originally published by Rueters’ Tan Ee Lyn, causing the author to be omitted from future searches for comparison [omit: “Tan Ee Lyn”]. Hardly any other mentions were found (although Nano-hype was in the top 10 hits). The actually frequencies are as follows:

First 24 hours (0-24) after the original publishing – 177 results (only 23 results not attributable directly or indirectly to Tan Ee Lyn and Reuters)
Second 24 hours (25-48) after the original publishing – 612 (narrowed down to 30 non-Reuters results)
Following 48 hours (48-96) after the original publishing – 8 results


SIMPLY PUT the media doesn't seem to want to cover nanoscience issues, even when we are talking about exposure to nanoparticles that may have resulted in two deaths and a handful of hospitalizations. I will leave deeper analysis for later but there are many reasons:
not American or Western women.
not men.
not newsworthy.....

TIME TO RE-EXAMINE how the nano-community is reaching out to the public. The perception studies are problematic and seem to suggest we have thresholded out. The recent experience with the Song et al study on Chinese women validates media disinterest even when the subject is controversial. MAYBE NANO has moved into its adolescent phase where we are no longer impressed by the latest sports equipment and promises of great things to come. MAYBE the hyperbole has run its course. Thanks to Meghnna Tallapragada for tracking this event.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

NANOPARTICLES RESPONSIBLE FOR DEATHS OF TWO CHINESE WOMEN???

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.