Thursday, May 18, 2006

Listen up, class: Let the facts interfere with your nanotox story

I may be an irresponsible blogger, or whatever, but I'm 40 years old and learned the craft on a manual typewriter from some old-school journalism mentors. If you cut me open, I bleed ink and not pixels.

So, that said, Journalism 101: If the premise of the story is in doubt -- that the "Magic Nano" recall is not really an example of what could go wrong with nanotech products, since there is likely no nanotech in the product -- then you need to change the focus of your story.

Let me repeat this in a clearer way, class. Let facts interfere with a good story.

It's frustrating to read and hear some of the coverage of this "story," since basic rules of journalism are apparently thrown out the window. Science and technology writers, especially, should know that there have actually been no tests showing that nanotechnology is toxic to anything or anyone. The old nanotube rat and buckyball fish studies show that if you pump these beasts full of raw nanoparticles, they'll probably suffocate or become brain damaged.

Any company that dumps a bunch of raw, uncooked, unengineered nanoparticles into any product would not actually be practicing "nanotechnology." So, these oft-repeated studies show absolutely nothing about the potential toxicity of nanotech products. They show that scientists are practicing science, one small step at a time.

Backgrounder
Nanotubes and the tale of the rats
A little story about drugs, bass and balls
Nano is a concept by which we measure our pain
How low can nano go?
Groups call for moratorium on nano-named products
Are nanoparticle studies 'one decade late'?

3 comments:

Jason Pontin said...

This criticism of the Technology Review story is inaccurate: the lead of the story emphasizes that chemical composition of Magic Nano was unknown at the time of writing, but possibly contained no "nano" at all. Howard is also quite wrong to say that no studies have reported toxicity in nanoparticles. There have been 7 recent studies, which report varying degrees of toxicity. The point of TR's story was to say: at the moment we possess no clear, commonly accepted standards for testing toxicity.

Howard Lovy said...

Hi, Jason,

Thank you for your comment. I'm drawing a distinction here between raw nanoparticles and nanotechnology that results from human engineering. I'm aware of most of the nanoparticle toxicity studies out there, and will report on a few more in some of my freelance work (more on that later).

My point is that these studies on nanoparticle toxicity are only baby steps in what will be a long process of discovery. The field of nanotox is very young. Some of the scientists I speak to compare current nanotox work with discoveries at the beginning of the last century, when the Periodic Table provided our first small molecule chemistry set. Pharmaceutical companies have been working on these building blocks for 100 years. In some combinations, they're toxic and in others they heal.

It's an old joke in the chemistry world, but studies have shown dihydrogen oxide to be incredibly dangerous to humans, causing lung and brain damage and even death. But it can also make a very refreshing beverage that humans cannot live without.

I think the public at large is capable of understanding the difference between studies that simply define what it is we're dealing with here and how these substances behave, and studies that have to do with real-world applications. But it's our duty to point this out, to make sure these distinctions are known.

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