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A Nickel for Your Thoughts on Nanotechnology

Posted in Black Swan, Environmentalism, Insurance, Nanotechnology, Risk

Could certain nanoparticles be next?As someone who has written two books on the topic of nanotechnology, including The Next Big Thing is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business, I’m well aware of the field’s immense potential. As a professional futurist, however, I am always cautioning my clients to be aware of “black swans”–or large unexpected events–and I often go to get pains to explain how these unanticipated events might alter the future in unexpected ways.

To this end, a new study is out suggesting that nickel nanoparticles may contribute to lung cancer. It is too soon to get overly excited about the study but it does serve as a cautionary reminder to proponents of nanotechnology (such as myself) that the field* is not without some big risks.

Lest anyone need a reminder, some 90 years ago everyone was bullish on a new wonder technology: asbestos. Today, of course, we have a decidedly different and more negative opinion of the stuff.

Could the same be true of certain nanoparticles in the future?

The qualified answer is: Yes.

*It’s not really fair to describe nanotechnology as “a field” because it is such a broad discipline. I use the term in this context because the public, regulators and politicians are unlikely to be overly discriminatory when weighing the pros and cons of different nano-particles, nano-materials and nanotechnologies. In short, if one nanoparticle gets a “black eye” the whole “field” will suffer.

One thought on “A Nickel for Your Thoughts on Nanotechnology”

  1. Lonny Eachus says:

    I am neither terribly surprised that micro-dust can cause physical ailments, or that nickel might prove to be a particular culprit.

    We have long experience with the idea that micro-particles may be irritants, and more recently that long-term inflammation from same can lead to cancer. A long history of the kinds of problems associated with coal-dust inhalation comes to mind, just for starters. More recently asbestos (and to a lesser extent silicosis from glass), and so on.

    But when it comes to metals, nickel has also long been known to be a biological irritant. Of those people who claim to an “allergy” to wearing metal against their skin, the vast majority of the items reported contain nickel as part of the alloy. The less pure gold and silver alloys are common sources of nickel that is worn on the body, and reported as sources of rashes and worse.

    If nickel alloyed with other, very inert metals can cause extreme irritation and inflammation, I am not in the lest surprised that microscopic nickel particles can do the same or worse.

    Do not misunderstand me: I have no doubt that as we explore manufactured micro objects and substances, we will run up against some surprises. I am only saying that of all common metals, nickel is probably the least surprising as a source of irritation and inflammation, and the problems that result from same.

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