Are we ready for the next nano-scare? – by Fabio Turone

Nanotechnologies are used in more and more consumer products: the use of nanoparticles (particles of any material whose size is in the order of few billionths of a meter) offers […]

Nanotechnologies are used in more and more consumer products: the use of nanoparticles (particles of any material whose size is in the order of few billionths of a meter) offers many advantages both for industry and for the consumers over more conventional manufacturing techniques. Every time a material is studied at the nano scale, scientists discover new appealing features, so that we know that basically nothing is the same when broken down and assembled in nanoparticles.

Of course, “nano” doesn’t necessarily mean “new” nor “man-made”, but for sure industry has had the main role in the silent nanorevolution we are undergoing (or, we may say, we are being subjected to unbeknownst to the majority of us).

Once more the “magnificent and progressive fate”?

We are exposed to powerful marketing (from industry and from science itself) so we know more and more about the benefits (certain or potential), but we still ignore almost all not only about risks, but even about the meaning itself – in such a totally different landscape – of the word “caution”.

Many products are now sold as “nano-free”, with a label that from a scientific point of view appears to be misleading, and it may be seen as ironic that the “first nanoscare” that hit in 2006 didn’t actually involve nanoparticles (“Nanoregulation: A recent scare involving nanotech products reveals that the technology is not yet properly regulated”,  EMBO Rep. 2006 September; 7(9): 858–861).

On the other hand, after a second strong warning that went unheeded in 2008 (“Nano-foods: The next consumer scare?”) the time might be now ripe for the “big one” (“You Think GMO Is Scary? Nano Tech is Here, In Your Store”).

Meanwhile, an editorial on Nature Nanotechnology (“The dose makes the poison”, June 2011) and a voluminous report by the US National Academy of Sciences (“A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials”, 2012) had both recognised that – basically – we know very little, too little, about safety.
Even the US Food and Drug Administration had admitted in a statement that “The consequences (to consumers and to the food industry) of broadly distributing a food substance that is later recognized to present a safety concern have the potential to be significant”, but at the same time rejected a petition from 2006 that urged a separate category of regulation for nanotechnology due to its “unique human health and environmental risks.” (“U.S. FDA says nanotech may need extra safety tests”).

While we wait for the “extra safety tests”

In this scenario, we science journalists are expected to agree on what is “reasonably” safe and what is so much uncertain to be “reasonably” worrying.

It’s not an easy task, as it was clear in the workshop I organised with my colleague Daniela Ovadia at the Course on nanotechnologies of the International School of Science Journalism and Communication at the Ettore Majorana Centre for Scientific Culture in Erice, Sicily, at the beginning of this month.

We proposed the participants (almost 40 from many different countries such as Austria, Estonia, Portugal, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Kingdom, Germany, and of course Italy) an “exercise of relativism”.

«Should I trust you?!?»


After an introductory speech revolving around the issue of trust and its utmost importance when dealing with risk and uncertainty, and before  Daniela Ovadia illustrated the pitfalls of heuristic – the many different shortcuts used by our brain in decision-making – and the way they tipically affect and influence journalism, we divided the participants in four heterogeneous groups (as for nationality and occupation: scientist, journalist, communicator): we gave them a list of sentences (see below), and asked each group to come up with an agreement on how to rank them based on the value they attributed – as a group – to each sentence.


1. Nanotechnologies are not intrinsically dangerous
2. Citizens don’t know what nanotechnologies are
3. In case of uncertainty, the precautionary principle should guide policy
4. Scientists still know very little about toxicity of nanomaterials
5. In a scenario dominated by uncertainty, the optimistic and pessimistic approach deserve the same consideration
6. Citizens don’t trust science
7. The duty of journalists is to make sure that their audience is informed in a timely fashion about every controversial and potentially dangerous aspect of a new technology, especially when it is widely used in commercial products
8. Scientists have more and more often conflicts of interest that may influence their judgment
9. Risks of nanotechnologies are possibly bigger that those linked to genetically modified organisms
10.    The concept of biocompatibility doesn’t make any sense at the nanoscale
11.    In the light of the experience with the “nanomutated” fly, the use of products containing nanoparticles should be avoided by pregnant women
12.    Scientific research shouldn’t be stopped as a result of unreasonable fears
13.    Scientists working on nanotechnologies should consider repeating the experience of the Asilomar Conference of 1975, in which scientists established a voluntary moratorium on certain types of recombinant DNA experiments until the hazards could be evaluated
14.    The media tend to exaggerate fears in order to attract wider audiences and sell more

Some sentences were quotes from the speakers of the previous days (such as “9. Risks of nanotechnologies are possibly bigger that those linked to genetically modified organisms” and “10.    The concept of biocompatibility doesn’t make any sense at the nanoscale”), while some others were just meant to require a subjective interpretation (such as “3. In case of uncertainty, the precautionary principle should guide policy” and “12.    Scientific research shouldn’t be stopped as a result of unreasonable fears”).

Then we compared the rankings, and discussed about them, focusing particularly on why some groups had valued so differently specific sentences.

 Is it newsworthy? Worrying or reassuring?

In the second part, we fully entered the domain of journalism: we distributed the relatively recent editorial by “Nature Nanotechnology” (“The dose makes the poison”, June 2011) and asked everyone to select the single most relevant sentence among the ones extracted from it:

Which single sentence deserves more attention?
(Put them in order from the most relevant to the least relevant)
A) Twenty years of research has confirmed that nanoscale materials can display unexpected and unusual toxicity, but just how much have we learnt about the interactions between engineered nanomaterials and humans, animals and the environment?
B) Nanoparticles are [also] more likely to react with cells and various biological components such as proteins, and to travel through organisms, which increases their chances of entering various organs and activating inflammatory and immunological responses
C) Traditional in vitro assays may misrepresent the response and cellular- uptake data for nanoparticles, making the test results less comparable across particle types than for soluble chemicals.
D) The chemical and physical properties of nanoparticles have a strong influence on the way in which they interact with biological components or the environment at large, and also on the way they move, accumulate and clear in the body.
E) Studying the influence of the various properties of nanomaterials, the dose, the exposure route and time, and identifying the right model systems is expensive and time consuming.
F) The big challenges in the coming years are to understand how physical and chemical properties of nanomaterials govern their interactions and responses, and to inform the public on the benefits and risks associated with the use of nanomaterials.
G) The dose makes the poison: the detailed characterization of the materials is essential in all areas of nanotoxicology.

We had planned to ask the groups to come out with a headline and lede (for three kinds of media) based on the selected sentence, but since the previous debate had taken a lot of time, we just asked who had selected which sentence, and why.
All sentences were selected by at least one participant, always because the content was considered newsworthy, and worrying.

So every sentence of that editorial was perceived as worrying by that selected group of scientists, science communicators and science journalists, despite the general sense we all share that “nano is essentially safe”.

By Jim Borgman –

A general sense that is not very much evidence-based, apparently, and due to the wide areas of uncertainty might suffer in many ways from the stringent – and otherwise healthy – application of science journalism’s 5Ws and an H, when the mud hits the fan.

Which was exactly the point of the declaration on media and safety published by the International community of pharmacovigilance in 2009 (I contributed to it):

The media and professional communicators have an important role, not only as safety partners, but also in scrutinising the performance of drug safety systems.
New ways to cooperate with the media as professional equals must be explored to help in the provision of balanced, comprehensible, trustworthy and interesting safety information to the public on a regular basis, apart from specific announcements or reports of problems or crises.

Erice Statement 2009: communication, medicines and patient safety
Br J Clin Pharmacol 2010; 69: 207–208

About Fabio Turone

Fabio Turone directs the Agency Zoe of scientific and medical information. He is President of Science Writers in Italy, Course Director of the International School of Science Journalism based in Erice, Sicily, and works with UNESCO at the Balkan School of Science Journalism.