Carbon nanotubes have been compared with asbestos.

Katharine Sanderson/London, UK

A leading occupational medicine expert has angered nanoparticle manufacturers by comparing carbon nanotubes (CNTs) with asbestos.

Anthony Seaton, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Aberdeen University, UK, told a meeting organised by the institute of nanotechnology that ’utterly trivial’ applications of nanoparticles, such as their addition to tennis balls, perfume bottles and dirt-repellent clothes, were likely to cause risks to human health.

’Trivial applications are the easy way of finding the money to advance the science,’ said Seaton. ’When that happens, these products get out there in large amounts and risks to human health come about.’ He referred in particular to the recent recall in Germany of Magic Nano, a protective glass and bathroom sealant, where 97 people have been taken ill with respiratory problems. 

He went on to compare CNTs to asbestos, because of the fibrous nature of both materials. ’It’s a long way from asbestos to nanotubes, but there is a link,’ he said. 

Such statements that mention asbestos and CNTs in the same breath are more dangerous than any products the industry can make, said one nanoparticle manufacturer at the meeting.

Alan Smith from the UK’s micro and nanotechnology network said there was nothing ’nano’ in Magic Nano. Seaton argued that in cases like Magic Nano the association with the word ’nano’ was enough to cause damage. ’It only takes one episode to destroy an industry,’ he warned. Analytical protocols must be introduced, to avoid products being made in the name of nano that have nothing to do with nanotechnology, he said.

Smith described anti-nanotechnology lobby groups as ’loonies’. Relationships between the nanotech industry and lobby groups will always remain hostile, he told Chemistry World.

Seaton was an author of the 2004 Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report ’Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties’. The RS report, now almost two years old, raised three questions that have yet to be addressed, said Seaton: measurement of nanoparticles; what determines the toxicity of nanoparticles; and what are the possible human exposures to nanoparticles.

David Parker, from the Faraday partnership Impact said that Seaton was being ’mischievous’ in his remarks, in particular his extrapolation from asbestos to CNTs. Milo Schaffer, from Imperial College London agreed that to make a leap from asbestos to CNTs was perhaps ’a bit naughty’. Molecules are much more dangerous than nanoparticles, he told Chemistry World.