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China warned on nano-safety

Academy of Science calls for more research on potential hazards

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China has been urged to carry out extensive safety studies and tighten regulation of its thriving nanotechnology industry to reassure countries importing nano-goods that there are no health risks associated with exposure to such materials.

Nanotechnology involves the control of atoms and molecules to create new materials with a potentially huge range of applications, from use in medicine to cosmetics and even food products.

However, concerns have been raised about the toxicity of such products given the unique chemical structure of nanoparticles – one nanometre is one-billionth of a metre.

Zhao Yuliang, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Centre for Nano-science and Technology (NCNST), told a conference on nanotoxicology earlier this month that researchers in China need to heed these concerns, Nature reported.

“We certainly don’t want safety issues to become a trade barrier for nano-based products,” he said. “The main challenge is to tease out what characteristics make some nanoparticles hazardous.”

China now has more patents in nanotechnology than Europe or the US, but only three per cent of its growing investment in the field is being spent on safety studies – about half that spent in the US, Nature said.

Researchers are particularly worried about nanoparticles that can be absorbed into the body through food products or cosmetics, or those that workers may be exposed to.

The Chinese public is apparently not too concerned, according to a recent survey by Dalian University of Technology, but perhaps they should be, given China’s track record on product safety, regulatory enforcement and workplace safety.

One of the most famous of numerous food scandals came in 2008, when Sanlu Group and other major dairy firms were found to have added melamine to their milk and infant formula products – killing six babies and injuring hundreds of thousands more.

Nanotechnology has been linked in the past to lung damage and was blamed in 2009 for the deaths of two workers at a Beijing printing works.

It looks like the research community will be heeding Zhao’s warning, however, with China set to join the Nanosolutions project which will aim to develop a safety classification system for nanoparticles.

This should help scientists to spot potential hazards in materials and design safer nanomaterials, the report said.

Chinese researchers at the NCNST are apparently already monitoring factory workers exposed to nanoparticles and are hopeful their findings will be used by the government to draw up occupational health regulations. ®

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